Saturday, September 19, 2015

Author Interview: Margaret Grundstein

In 1970, Margaret Grundstein dropped out of a graduate program at Yale to follow her husband, an Indonesian prince and community activist, to a commune in the backwoods of Oregon.

Margaret is now the owner and director of a preschool in Venice, California, and has a private practice as a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. But we should all be glad she decided to share the story of her hippie years in her new memoir, Naked in the Woods: My Unexpected Years in a Hippie Commune, published by OSU Press.

Margaret recently took the time to answer some questions for Rose City Reader. You can also listen to her recent interviews on KATU's AM Northwest, OPB's Think Out Loud, and Montana Public Radio's The Write Question.

How did you come to write Naked in the Woods?

Nine years ago a friend handed me the memoir Huerfano, by Roberta Price, which tells her story of leaving graduate school to live communally in rural Colorado. After reading Huerfano, I realized it provided one of the few depictions of the '60s and '70s that did not portray "hippies" as silly two dimensional characters. My thought was that my past communards and I should write of our adventure during that historic time as well.

I emailed several of the people involved, hoping to create a communal telling of a communal tale, each of us writing our own perspective. What I didn’t know was that I had no idea how to write and that most of the others had even less. What I did have was an ability to jump into a task ignorant of all it required. Ultimately the Rashomon approach failed as did an attempt to tell the story from two sides. Now I was on my own. By this time, several years into the project, I was hooked on the process. I loved sitting down after a day at work, pulling my chair up in front of my computer and keyboarding my way into another world. Parsing words, building phrases, getting lost in my story was mesmerizing. Once I started it was hard to stop, often writing late into the night even though I had obligations the next morning.

Nine years after that email to old friends, perfect strangers are reading my book. What a delight. The time had come for my generation to tell our tales and I wrote mine, one woman's account of an historic period. But like any memoirist, I have more to offer than events. What makes a story come alive is the meeting between the respective internal worlds of the reader and the writer. In Naked in the Woods I offer my inner most awareness to anyone who cares to open the covers of my book, sharing a level of intimacy we often have only with ourselves. By doing so I return a favor, as best I can. All my life I have been an avid reader finding solace and insight in the words of others. Each author becomes an immediate best friend, instantly accessible by turning their pages. Now it is my turn to make a deposit into the common pool of the written word. My book is a very small thank you to all those who shared their interior world, leaving me less alone in mine. With Naked in the Woods I am able, in some small measure, to give back. How good that feels.

You were going to get a master’s degree in urban planning from Yale. What made you give that up to join a hippie commune in Oregon?

In 1969, I was part of a group of radicals at Yale University trying to create a community where we could live in peace and innocence. Change seemed possible. San Francisco celebrated the Summer of Love, Martin Luther King taught us the power of nonviolence, and Woodstock was iconic before the mud in Max Yeager’s fields had dried. Then armored tanks rolled across the campus.

We advocated peace, ignoring the implications of our growing militancy as students occupied campus buildings, organized strikes, and demanded an end to the war in Vietnam and racism at home. Nationally, the civil rights movement shifted with the arrival of thirty Black Panthers at the California State Assembly flaunting rifles and shotguns to protest arms-control legislation. The country, watching on television, shuddered and looked to the locks on their doors and windows. Cities burned, assassins murdered Malcolm X and Reverend King and the National Guard, dressed like invading aliens in gas masks and goggles, killed four students at Kent State, injuring nine. This was revolution.

Swaying together singing We Shall Overcome was no longer enough. The tanks lumbering through my neighborhood, clanking down my street brought home the futility of confrontational tactics. We needed a new plan, one that was plausible and released us from the politics of mutual hate. If we couldn’t change the world, we would change ourselves and build communities, where, as the Beatles told us, All You Need is Love. In Vermont, New Mexico, Virginia and Oregon—any place where land was available and people sparse—students dropped out, looking for a more peaceful revolution. The back-to-the-land movement showed us a way we could love ourselves, each other and the dirt that fed us.

After graduation, my new husband and I, along with ten of our friends, headed west like generations before us. Our covered wagon was a Chevy van. We abandoned indoor plumbing, electricity, supermarkets and the benefits of our graduate Ivy League degrees for one-hundred-and-sixty acres in the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, seeking the sweetness of childhood without sacrificing adult perks. “Freaks,” they called us, not far off the mark. We, in turn, felt anointed by God; that is, if God is love. Our adventure lasted five years, our quest timeless, with ripples that lap on the shoreline of the present. The future grows out of the past.

I wore my hippie status proudly, even defiantly. We had been raised to be good; to share, to see beyond race and income and to make the world a better place. Every childhood story, parental exhortation and moral parable set the mold; virtue and the search for it brought meaning to life. I was willing to risk everything for a chance to live from my better self, to experience the peace of love without sacrificing the thrill of adventure. My parents thought I achieved the good life with my entry into Yale. They were wrong. I found it naked in the woods.

What were you least prepared for when you moved to Greenleaf, your first commune? What about when you moved to the second property, Floras Creek?

When I moved to Greenleaf I was unprepared for living so closely with a group of other people. I grew to love it. Moving to Floras Creek was a different kind of shift. At Floras Creek there was nothing but 160 acres of remote, primal forest, with one drafty cabin, a hand pump, and each other. Persuaded by the dogmatic rhetoric of my husband, I abandoned career and cachet for the earth and each other. Then he left, seduced by the siren call of freer love. Now I had to choose. Could I make it as a single woman in man’s country and most importantly, did I want to? Was I still committed to the dream of a more utopian life? Yes, was my answer as I put my overachieving shoulder to the task of building a cabin; hand-sawing driftwood for the foundation, ripping boards from abandoned shacks for siding. This was home.

As some point, your story starts to sound less like Utopia and more like Lord of the Flies. What went wrong?

Nothing went wrong. The inevitable happened; our humanity caught up with us. We are all imperfect beings. Living together is hard. Marriages, nuclear families, roommates, all of these require communication and mutual agreement to thrive. Forging a union with a much larger group not related by birth and history is even more challenging, especially when old rules are thrown out and new agreements are not yet formed. Learning how to live as a community takes time, leadership, consensus and financial viability, or alternatively the heavy hand of brute force. Whether one lives as part of a tribe or as part of a contemporary nation, finding common ground is crucial. We were independent spirits, trying to live collectively, in peace and harmony with each other and the earth, outside of mainstream culture. Ultimately financial realities grounded in the larger world took hold. We didn’t fail. We tried. And sometimes that is enough. Our foot print remains.

Other than former (or current) hippies, who do you think would enjoy your book?

Naked in the Woods takes place in an historic period, speaking to those of us who remember and those who still seek. The future grows out of the past. Young families in Detroit, Los Angeles and the White House harvest dinner from their organic gardens. Portland has over 10 organizations to promote poultry raising at home, including one that offers a tour of 22 coops and a chance to meet the chickens. The longing to connect is timeless, even as teen-agers text and adults boast of 600 Facebook friends. We yearn to be in touch with the land, ourselves, and each other. Naked in the Woods speaks to the quest, the challenge of reaching for our better selves, both individually and collectively.

The audience for Naked in the Woods includes Millenials who are seeking their own path to a better future, those of us who lived in the '60s and '70s who want to remember our past, historians who seek first person accounts of this iconic period, feminists and gender studies scholars who are interested in the tale being told from the voice of a woman, and anyone who enjoys a good story well told. All of us have dreamed of a better life. This story is for you.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

My most powerful revelation is that writing is like a drug. Time disappears. Words flow. Phrases form. Fully engaged I slip into another world.

With writing, like most things in life, I have learned to trust my instincts, to keep my mind open to constructive criticism, and as they say in the Nike ad, "just do it."

Naked in the Woods is my first book, both written and published. Everything has been a surprise.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

I am re-reading Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and getting ready to start her newest book, The Odd Woman and the City. She is a brilliant writer; insightful, clean in her prose and clear in her ideas. I am also reading Ken Follett’s historical trilogy, Fall of Giants, which allows me to escape into a long well told story, week after week after week. Recently I finished The War Within by Bob Woodward. Before that I delved into Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a perfectly faceted, tightly cut, gem of a book.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

If you are bored reading your own writing it’s a sure sign your readers will be bored as well.

Be sure you know what you are trying to say and then say it. Muddy ideas are just that: muddy ideas.

Go deep. That is where we touch each other; the delicate inner spots that when shared remind us of our mutual humanity.

Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?

Yes! Click on the links for details:
What’s next? What are you working on now?

We're jokes; overlooked, bypassed, our less than shapely forms proof of your worst fears. You glance at our crenelated necks and spotted hands and think, if you think of us at all, as faded beings, passively waiting for the last bus to arrive, opening its doors with a sigh. Cut! Wrong picture! Rewind that tape. Here's the surprise. Inside this less than juicy body resides a fecund mind and a fluttering heart, not in need of defibrillation, but beating with the powerful rhythms of life. Yes that engine, 'love,' is still alive and well, actively flourishing, even now in what is supposed to be my dotage. My work in progress is a narrative non-fiction memoir, written as a collection of short stories, each of which explores a different aspect of love; intimacy, friendship, family, self, work, and sex in the life of a seventy year old woman. Every story stands alone, yet they speak to each other forming a unified whole. America's population is aging. Baby boomers are no longer babies but grandparents. Who are we, the newly old, blessed with longevity and health, clear minds, and adequate wallets.......or not. Like women who have learned from advertising to objectify themselves, we, the old, have learned to disparage our value.

My present work rewrites that story. Friendship, open and true, pulses with life, both in health and under the portal of death. A new man, still athletic and strong, the kind of good looking I thought relegated to my past, brings up erotic charges not dimmed by age. New bruises form and old ones reactivated as I bump up against loved ones, in that most tender of relationships, family. As a woman my body defined me. Who am I now as I fade even further into old age, almost genderless in the peacock feathered world of procreation? And work? What a love affair that still can be! Age does not condemn us to bleak vistas with palliative t.v. and golf. My synapses fire, ideas form, my inner world a rich landscape where I soar riding currents of creativity. No, not dead yet, my heart still beating, thoughts still thrumming, alive until I'm not, which blessed be me, isn't the story I have come to tell.



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