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Lions Roar : September 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2010 34 I am okay—its nice of you to have some food brought to me and I want to thank you but I don’t know yr Language so I say silently with my eyes... * My body turned into sugar, poured into tea I found the meaning of life A few months after the reading in the Village, i became one of Allen’s apprentices in the Jack Kerouac school of Disembodied Poetics at naropa University in boulder, Colorado, founded by Chögyam Trungpa rinpoche. Other writer–heroes of mine, like William burroughs and gregory Corso, taught there too, as did buddhist teachers like Jack Kornfield and Taizan maezumi roshi, founder of the los Angeles Zen Center, who showed me how to meditate. it was Allen’s belief that the best education came not from niggling over line breaks and metaphors in air- less workshops, but from living with poets and seeing how their minds worked in ordinary situations—like the old hasidic folktale in which a young man says he is making a pilgrimage to a renowned rabbi not to discuss Torah, but to watch him tie his bootlaces. One virtue of this approach was that seeing a world-famous poet in his underwear in the morning, turning the pages of the new York times, tended to strip one of exalted illusions. These beat generation icons sweated, gossiped, got crabby about the littlest things, schlepped to the supermarket (except when they had me do it), made clumsy passes at sexy young poets, and had enormous and very fragile egos. in short, they were a mess, but as my buddhist poet friend marc Olmsted puts it in his best bur- roughsian drawl, “it’s samsara, my dear, we’re all a mess.” Yet they got it done—the real Work of making poems, build- ing community, and encouraging each other to be honest, con- scious, and awake to the fierce beauty of every passing moment, every breath. At naropa, life, art, and buddhist practice were in- distinguishable. That was the point. That said, when i started coming to Allen’s townhouse apart- ment in the mornings to transcribe his notebooks, i was a little shocked to find Peter snoring on the couch as some handsome as- piring beat strolled down from the master bedroom in a towel. it was only years later that i fully understood the intricacies of Allen and Peter’s arrangement. Though they were the first gay male cou- ple that many people had ever heard of, Peter wasn’t, in any strict sense, gay. he was more physically attracted to women, and re- sponded to them in ways that Allen couldn’t. They both had other lovers on the side. so why had Peter virtually married Allen? because they adored one another. They were soul brothers, beyond categories. Their love and mutual devotion was another weed that flourished in the cracks—an impossible happiness. not that the impossible was easy. my first summer at naropa, Peter was in marvelous shape. he was tanned and muscular from working on the farm, meditating a lot and eating healthily. (like Allen, he touted the lifesaving virtues of whatever latest food kick he was on, from bee pollen to macrobiotics. On a typical morning at the farm in 1979, he told the young poet Cliff Fyman, “molas- ses makes you shit good and feel at one with the universe and natural earth cycle!”) best of all, Peter wasn’t drinking or on hard drugs that summer. he glowed. ever willing to help, he chauf- feured famous poets, musicians, and gurus around boulder, kept the townhouse spotless, and provided a buffer for Allen, who was shorter-tempered than usual, perhaps because his father louis had died just a few months before. Peter kept a benevolent eye on the scruffy members of Allen’s inner circle even when Allen was too busy being legendary to do so. The day i told Peter that i was going to san Francisco for the first time, he patted nineteen-year- old me on the head and said, “Oooh, don’t get in trouble.” Peter knew from trouble. growing up on long island, the Or- lovskys had been so poor they lived in a chicken coop. Peter’s mother, brothers, and sister spent most of their lives in institu- tions, struggling with schizophrenia, developmental disabilities, and other conditions. his mother Kate had been struck deaf and partially paralyzed in a botched operation by a drunk doctor. no wonder Peter grew into a young man attuned to the suffering of others. When Allen met him in 1954, Peter had been expelled from the U.s. Army—where he had worked as an ambulance driver—for telling a psychiatrist, “An army with guns is an army against love.” Photographs of Peter with his family are heart- wrenching: the holy innocent in a charnel ground. Together Peter and Allen traveled all over, sowing seeds of poetry, tenderness, public candor, and American buddhism worldwide. They hung out with burroughs in Tangier, smoked ganja and contemplated burning corpses in ghats along the ganges, wrote Charlie Chaplin a fan letter from benares, and visited the young Dalai lama in Dharamsala. They also meditated side by side on railroad tracks in Denver to block delivery of radioactive material to the leak-prone rocky Flats nuclear plant. Often, a reading by Allen at some illustrious academic institution would feature Peter unselfconsciously yodeling away with a banjo about the joys of shoveling shit on their farm. Hay Rassberrys with your little red hat on How we love to pick you in the early morning light never will I forget how sweet you are! Alas, when i returned to naropa in 1987 to be Allen’s teaching assistant, it was Peter who had gotten into trouble. he was us- ing heavy drugs and was angry a lot. he ended up in a drunken brawl with british psychologist r.D. laing that resulted in sixty- year-old Allen fracturing his pinky and bruising his knee and tailbone when the police accidentally shoved him to the ground. “The sidewalk reared up and whacked me on the ass!” Allen told their friends. Peter’s genes were stacked against him. his last years with Allen were difficult, as his drug and drinking problems, aggravated by bouts of psychosis, got the upper hand. On the advice of singer