The College: The First Semester (Post #6)
Perhaps the most salient feature of my Amherst (College) era Journals is their paucity. I would be there for a total of three years—although I would take a semester off before graduating—and during this time, I would only fill five notebooks (usually 70-100 page spiral notebooks). I would, on the other hand, fill nearly twice that many notebooks in the year after graduation.
I think what I wrote in “An Interlude and a Dream:”
summed up my experiences and what I extracted from my time at Amherst.1 But here I will try to fill that time in with some details.
Amherst in so many ways opened up my mind far beyond anything I could’ve conceived prior to my attendance. Although I did not remotely turn out to be the black yuppie that I had envisioned for myself, I did, as Thoreau mentioned, come to realize how lost I was and how I desperately needed to embark on the journey of self-discovery. That would mean a sacrificing of previous ideals and ambitions, but they needed to be surrendered so that I might, God-willing, find the Truth.
My first impressions of Amherst? I was intimidated and that was largely the reason I did so little Journal writing. I was intimidated because I was around not only very intelligent kids, but also very well-read kids. As I would remark in passing, the students here were bred for these kinds of places. These were the kids from the 1600 Club (SAT scores). These were the kids who might’ve broke down and cried if they received a “B” on their report card in high school. Many were from ultra-privileged homes, and those who were not, were ultra-high achievers. I was from neither. As I said before, I had a passion for learning, but also, in time, I would develop a passion not only to learn but to know the Truth.
In my Journal, I call Amherst “My Side of Paradise” (of course taking that from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book), and I write: “I don’t ever want to leave this place.” I refer to Amherst as a place of “intellectual nutrition,” and I would write: “There is some kind of romantic poetry going on in my life—in all of life.” The natural beauty of the campus and the general area no doubt was central in eliciting these feelings. Emerson wrote: “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” I would later write in my Journal upon returning to Amherst 22 years later: “I sought to devour the horizons and vistas with my eyes.” The contours of Amherst had become the daily bread of my vision.
It wasn’t only the natural beauty (or the autumn air) that endeared me to Amherst that first semester. As I said, there was the intellectual stimulation, as well as, the setting. The students were immersed in the world of ideas. It wasn’t like my time at community college where people were there to get a piece of certification to further their job prospects—and that’s it. In community college, the students were not talking about social activism, or Chinese water colors, or the political implications of rap music. I sought out different types of people to hang out with. I was tucked away in Pond Annex, and on our floor, there were a couple of all-American guys from Ohio, another guy who I don’t remember much about him—I’m thinking he must’ve been pretty reclusive. And there was my next door neighbor. He was from Northern California. He was a brilliant guy, a math major, but he was also a later day incarnation of the counter-culture of the 60’s. We talked about a wide range of topics, from politics, to history, to art. After classes were over we would go down to the athletic fields and throw the Aerobie around (an Aerobie is a long distance throwing ring, like a Frisbee, that can be thrown 100 yards with a little bit technique). Then there was the the air. The air. The air of autumn in Amherst is something to be relished.
As for the black student population at Amherst, they were not like any black people I had encountered before. What I knew of black people were folks like myself—either simple working class (even if they tried to pretend they were something above that) and “ghetto.” At Amherst I was with living breathing Cosby Kids. There were black students both of whose parents had graduated from Ivy League schools. There were black students who had grown up attending prep schools. Probably half the black kids on campus were either biracial or had grown up almost exclusively around whites—they didn’t know how to “act black.”
Amherst, although historically a bastion of WASP culture, made efforts to promote the “classic liberal tradition.” Amherst College was considered to be the first college to grant a black student, Edward Jones, a Bachelor’s Degree in 1826. (It was later discovered that Middlebury College, another elite New England institution, had granted the first B.A. to an African-American two years earlier.) During my “Triumphant Return Trip” to Amherst last year, I was given the book, The Black Men of Amherst, by Harold Wade, Jr. Among the most interesting facts that stuck out was that in 1892, William Henry Lewis, who would later go on to become assistant Attorney General of the United States, gave the commencement speech. Although Amherst is a small school (when I was there, we had about 1,600 students) with a very small black student body, but still it produced more than its share of notable African-Americans. As Wade says, “Different times brew different men,” it could also be said that “different places brew different people.” Amherst was a different place.
All was not perfect in my Valley Shangri La. I would throughout my time at Amherst struggle with a love-hate relationship with the place. I loved Amherst because it afforded me the time to think, to dream, to expand my mind, and be around some similar-minded people, but at the same time, I sensed that something was profoundly missing in my life, and that there was something amiss in the world around me. For one, although I was at school with the “bright and beautiful” (and very often phenomenally wealthy) many of the students were living essentially empty lives (and this could be seen while they were under the influence of the truth serum that is alcohol—and Amherst had the alcohol flowing copiously on campus).
On October 3rd I write: “Amherst can do me good.” Six days later I write: “I’m starting to spiritually unravel.” “K,” whom I had grown up with in Springfield, would come to Amherst to visit on the weekends. He and I would engage in psychonautic tours of the inner-verse, that I won’t mention how we got there because this is meant to be a G-rated blog, and I by no means wish to “brag” about former sins. I had also come across a book at the Robert Frost Library about meditation, and although I was not meditating at that time, it was an introduction to various states of consciousness without the ingestion of certain substances.
Additionally at this time, my counter-culture neighbor turned me on to the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The first book I read was called A Separate Reality. It was part of a series of books about the author at least allegedly going down to Mexico, and meeting a Yaqui (Native American) shaman. Carlos, who was a stereotypical anal-retentive academic type of his era (the series starts in the early 1960’s) wants to “study the mind altering properties of the herbs ingested by the shamans of the region. Don Juan tells him that the was to understand these plants is not to “analyze their chemical composition” but to experience their influence. Castaneda does, and this is the beginning of his apprenticeship with Don Juan. (Now for the record, I am not advocating that anyone go and do psychotropic drugs—there are far better and cleaner ways to attain higher states of consciousness than dumping dope into the body. I am just reporting some of the the things that influenced me on this journey.)
What I took from Don Juan was the idea of being a “man of power”—that is, a man who had attained self-mastery by way of self-understanding. This I considered a worthy ideal even if I personally might fail to attain it. Also, the other related theme was the importance of following a “path that has heart.” Upon reading how Carlos Castaneda had (apparently) forsaken career, women, a wife, and family to sit in the desert and learn from Don Juan, I realized then that I wanted to find a “guide”—someone who could answer some of the deeper questions of existence—of the deeper questions about myself and help me clear the way for greater self-understanding and self-clarity. I was seeking self-transformative knowledge. I didn’t merely want to acquire the knowledge of books—I wanted to acquire the knowledge of self. I wanted to learn how to become a complete person. I wanted to attain, as Erikson called it, “Self-Realization.”
Yes, things were about to unravel, and at the end of the semester I had what they call an “existential crisis.” I had turned in my final paper. I was sure I had flunked out of The College, squandered my scholarship, and would have to return to Springfield as a failure. How could I explain this to my friends, to my family—that I wasn’t able to hack it? How could they possibly understand how my mind had been stretched, and that the things I previously had valued and desired seemed increasingly trite and insignificant? How would I be able to withstand the narrow confines of the world of Springfield? Would I go back to Burger King and as for my old job back? As I sat in my dorm room alone—waiting for “K” to come and take me to his house, so I could go to the airport the following day—the song from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You Without You played:”
Try to realize it’s all within yourself.
No-one else can make you change,
And to see you’re really only very small,
And life flows on within you and without you.
There is a universe of consciousness within, as there is one without. But what does that mean and what is it for? Perhaps, this pensive train of thought was related to the passing of my grandmother a couple of years earlier, which I had largely pushed to the recesses of my mind. But upon those lyrics sinking deep into my psyche, I had to call my whole life into question. Although I loved the natural beauty of Amherst and being immersed in an intellectual environment, it was inadequate when it came to answering the most important questions of life. This song made me mull over, and over, and over again that even if you are to realize your dreams of going to law school, getting that job at the United Nations (or on Wall St.), having the candy apple red BMW 325i convertible, and marrying that exotic wife from Latin America that this wouldn’t really be a “path with heart?” I would not be true to myself. What would be the point of living a life that, perhaps, I might be known to others, but I would still remain largely unknown to myself—unfamiliar with that world within?
The fact of the matter is that death would come regardless of worldly accomplishments and accolades. People might cry a day or two after they put me in that hole in the ground, but then, their lives would go on as usual—life would go on without me. But how could they just go on? I didn’t mean that in some sort of egocentric selfish manner, but how could people go back to their soul numbing mundane lives after putting someone they knew in the grave? How could they return to the mundane while not knowing what would be in store for them after they themselves die—wouldn’t it be worth expending all one’s effort to know about what occurs to us after we expire? What is the significance of life when it is always marred by death? Why lead a conventional life—a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said—when the reality of death was always looming over our heads? One may as well, as Don Juan put it, be a “man of power”—be a man who seeks the Truth. What else is there in this world other than Truth and its opposite? It would not be possible for me to go back to what I thought I wanted to be. I would have to begin to change myself.
1 When I say “at Amherst” I mean my time prior to graduating from Amherst College. When I say in Amherst, that means my the subsequent year I spent after graduation.