When I came here as a fresh-faced freshman in September 1963, one of the things we were obliged to do as journalism majors was work on the Bona Venture. The first time I reported for duty in the BV office, then on the second floor of Butler Gym, there was a radio on, some local station. And I remember two songs. One was a jazzy instrumental called “Washington Square,” and the other was a rockabilly number called “The Last Days of Kinzua.”
That fall, the big political issue in these parts was the building of the Kinzua dam on the Allegheny, breaking a treaty signed by George Washington and the great Seneca chief Cornplanter and flooding thousands of acres of tribal lands.
Needless to say, there was much feeling on both sides. And this song, by Red Arrow and the Braves—I assumed they were a bunch of local white boys—was all about it. It was racist, a bit, yeah, but it was also sympathetic to the Seneca, and it was the first thing that really lit my activism fire. Of course, today no white boys would dare use a movie-Indian tom-tom rhythm (looking at YOU, Atlanta Braves!) much less the word “redskins”, but those were different days…
Anyway, the dam was built, the lands were drowned, the Seneca, Keepers of the Western Door, were displaced. But I never forgot the song. I didn’t recall any verses; it was the hook that stuck... ”Cornplanter, Cornplanter, chief of the tribe / Where, oh, where can all your braves hide? / Cornplanter, Cornplanter, what can they do / On the last days of Kinzua?”
Every so often it would come around on the brain radio playlist—and when it recently popped up again in the rotation, I decided to search for it on the Web.
I had only the hook to go on. But I Googled it anyway, and I got one hit, just one. A guy in Australia had bought the entire backstock of a long-defunct Rochester recording studio, and “The Last Days of Kinzua” was one of the songs he had. So I emailed him and told him the story, and he emailed back, saying he’d be delighted to burn me a CD and oh by the way I was his best friend’s wife’s favorite author.
I had a copy made—and I am happy to present it to Dean Lee Coppola, at whose kind invitation I’m here tonight, and whom I first met in that very same office in Butler Gym back that very same September, and who probably heard that very same song on that very same radio. What goes around comes around and goes around some more. Somewhere, Cornplanter is smiling. Bow before the power of the Internet—or of synchronicity!
I tell this story because it neatly ties up my first Bonaventure memories with my later life, and as a novelist I just loooove stuff like that. When I came here, it was the farthest from home I’d ever been. Seventeen years old, on my own for the first time, watching my family drive away without me, I had one brief pang, and then my new roommates said Hey let’s walk to Allegany and get a burger at Sylvain’s, and I was fine. Standing still, I had achieved escape velocity. And it was good.
It was good because I knew in that moment I was on my way for real. I’d always been a writer, and I wanted to go to a journalism school, a place that would teach me how to make that talent be useful to and for me. I didn’t want pretentious creative writing courses, because I don’t believe anyone can be taught to write creatively. No. I wanted journalism. Someplace small. A beautiful location. My parents were happy that I chose Bona’s, but my parish priest warned them that sending me to a Catholic college was the worst thing imaginable, that I’d light out of the Church forever within six months.
He was sort of right and sort of wrong. For one thing, it only took about six days…from a very young age I had never had any real commitment as a Catholic, only a gunpoint religiosity. So yeah, I bolted faster than a cheetah on speed, first chance I got, but along with my true professional calling, I also found my true faith. And here was where I found them both. Which was the best thing imaginable.
How does a nice Irish Catholic girl from Long Island end up as a Celtic Pagan priestess and the wife of the most Dionysian of rock princes and the author of a science-fantasy series? It wasn’t something I’d planned; it just happened. And things generally happen because of a choice. Good or bad.
One of the good things that my force-fed Catholicism gave me was a real education. Say what you will about the dogma, if you went to Catholic school in the ’50s and ’60s, you came out very well educated indeed. True, it could be a slanted schooling—my mother, taught by Dominicans, never even heard of the Inquisition until she was in her thirties—but by today’s standards you got a classical-humanist education on a positively Jeffersonian level. Catholic schools produced not only moral and courteous people but cultured ones. Which was why I didn’t kick about being packed off here—I figured at least I could read in peace.
I was more graced in my choice than I knew: I would probably have killed Jesuits, or been killed by them, but the Franciscans, hippies of the Church, had a different ethic. That’s me in the classroom losing my religion…and my parish priest, God rest his soul, was right. The best place to go to lose your religion, any religion—or rather, to find your faith, your true faith, the faith that was meant for you, the faith that you were made for, whatever one it might be—is a religious school.
Bonaventure was beautiful then, as I’m happy to see it still is. Home for the “coeds”—for so we were known—was St. Elizabeth’s Hall (now criminally demolished), a fabulous hundred-year-old red-brick pile—dormered attics, dim high-ceilinged hallways, a spectacular double staircase of perfect period golden oak. The E came complete with in-house chapel and a cloister for the nuns who were, for their sins, assigned to look after us—and who made the best baked goods I have ever met.
I loved living there. My freshman room was a huge garret loft housing seven of us. The nun who was the freshman proctor, only a few years older than we were, slept in a cubicle in one corner. Bells rang all day long: prayer times for the nuns, chapel, breakfast, dinner, mandatory study from 8 to 10. Lights out (more bells) at 11, unless you had a room of your own, as I did my sophomore year: a tiny chamber next door to the cloister, with a Stickley desk and dresser and rocking chair—in those days and these parts, almost certainly the original thing—and a tall oak-shuttered window opening on the mountains and the river and a sunset view halfway to Ohio.
There was one TV set in the whole dorm. No stereos permitted. Demerits for unmade beds. No trousers allowed on campus, only skirts—this in the heart of the lake-effect snowbelt, the ground’s white from Halloween to Easter! It flurried the second morning I was here—the week after Labor Day. I remember a pair of nylons actually disintegrating on my legs in the subzero January cold, a cold so dry and intense it FROZE YOUR NOSE HAIRS AS YOU BREATHED.
Gentleman callers were permitted in the parlors only, within severely limited hours—and with the doors open at all times. If you wanted to leave the dorm after dinner you had to sign out and say where you were going—to campus, to Olean, to sit on the front steps—and you had to sign in even if you stayed home in your room.
There was the joy of small rebellion... I toilet-papered the Friary my first Halloween (soaped a few windows, too) and fled across campus pursued by a friar in a car. I cleverly scouted through the Rob-Fal woods and ducked into Butler to establish my alibi before venturing back to the E. And there was the night my sorority sisters and I lugged all the saint statues in St E’s down to the basement dining room—they looked quite surreal in the tiny ancient elevator, let me tell you—and lined them up outside the kitchen door with forks in their hands. For reasons that defy recollection, St. Maria Goretti was placed in a phone booth, with a handkerchief on her head and the receiver on her shoulder.
(I hope the statute of limitations has run out on these heinous offenses. But, confession is said to be good for the soul...)
I was of course here when President Kennedy was assassinated. A classmate ran into Professor Leo Keenan’s lit. class to tell us the President had been shot. We scoffed, nah, couldn’t be (at least I did), he shrugged, and we watched Uncle Leo stride away stonefaced straight up to the teletype machine in the j-room, and thought it must be true. Then I went back to the E to cry my eyes out with my roommates watching Walter Cronkite break the news. Those of us who didn’t instantly leave for Washington D.C. stayed home in the dorm, huddled together or stonily alone, in floods of tears.
Three days later, there was a splendid High Requiem Mass held in Butler Gym: black vestments and Dies Irae, men on the gym floor and women in the balcony, which oddly enough seemed on this one occasion fitting and right and even biblical—straight out of the Middle Ages, it remains one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.
So yeah, I’d say life here had its moments.
As for our actual schooling? No fluff. My freshman schedule was Latin (along with editing, the best course I ever took for my writing), junior-year French, English literature, theology, philosophy, math, sociology and history. Sophomore year, lit. and journalism courses predominated, the French was senior-level and the Latin was literature of the Republic and the Empire. There were Saturday classes. There were 8 a.m. classes. There were 8 a.m. Saturday classes.
For the most part the teachers were friars. There was one woman on the faculty, a nun who taught logic and apologetics. There were lay profs, all male—I still remember with fondness and gratitude Leo Keenan and Malcolm Wallace and Boyd Litzinger. The friars were good, gentle, capable souls; a few, like Fr. Irenaeus Herscher and Fr. Francis X. Miles, were both inspiring and inspired.
I learned a great deal from them—if perhaps not exactly what they were trying to teach me, certainly things that would stand me in good stead forever after. Yet even here, misogyny reared its ugly head—and what St. Francis’s good friend and spiritual sister St. Clare would have said to it, I can only imagine...
There was one particular friar who notoriously spewed sexism of such a toxic nature as would today have had him up on harassment charges. Upperclasswomen warned freshman females about him, but to my knowledge no one in authority ever called him on it.
He routinely referred to women as sluts and whores, and reduced at least one girl to tears. She was sitting in the front row—where he made all the coeds sit—with knees slightly apart, and when he—a PRIEST—leaned over the lectern and snarled “Close the gates of hell, bitch!” she ran out weeping. I myself came in for his malignity one day when he—a PRIEST—made me stand beside the lectern and step back, then forward again, to illustrate the sculptural concepts of “high relief” and “low relief” by how far my bosom jutted past the lectern edge. Even the boys in the class were appalled. For my part I refused to be embarrassed, and after that he left me alone. And the times they’ve done some changin’—vide President Sr. Margaret.
But mostly I remember very good times—and very good people. One in particular was Thomas Mosser, my editor on the BV and my first peer-mentor, who as many of you know was blown up by the Unabomber, and I wept when I heard. And others with whom I’m still in touch to this day.
As for my journalism training—I would never have gotten anything like that kind of attention at the big shiny fancy j-schools I’d considered. True, we didn’t have a whole lot in the way of technology: a linotype machine and the teletype ticker was pretty much it. The second-best thing about the experience was what it was not. It was not competitive. It was not cutthroat. It was not a sharkfight over who got to be editor’s pet that week. The best thing was what it was, which was hands-on and familial and instructive, not only in journalistic technique but in how to carry yourself in the world and before God and how to play nice with others, like the ladies and gentlemen our leader always called us.
Russell Jandoli, then head of the department, was a role model and a teacher in the true sense of the word. He taught me how to think the story like a reporter and feel the story like a reader and write the story like a witness on oath and edit the story like a hanging judge. Without his influence, I would still have become a writer and editor, but not the writer and editor I became because of him. And he had the best yarns to spin us.
It’s soooo bogus that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. Teaching is merely doing in a different way, and very often those who do couldn’t be one of those who teach in a million years. (Looking at YOU, Patricia Morrison!) Dr. J. had the incomparable gift of being able to instill ideas, not impose them. He was a journalism Jedi master. He was our Yoda, and we were all his padawan learners.
I’ve gone on about this at such length because I want you to get a real sense of how it was here, then. And that is how it was. And after two years, I’d had enough: I transferred to Harpur College, the Berkeley of the New York State system, now Binghamton University—whence I graduated in June of 1967 with a B.A. in English, having learned a whole raft of new things—not all of them academic.
In the fall of ’66, I got a weekend job as a go-go dancer in Triple Cities roadhouses; hip new boyfriends introduced me to pot and to amazing new music—Big Brother & The Holding Company and the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Buffalo Springfield and Cream; and in January of 1967, a stunningly enigmatic band out of Los Angeles, with a lead singer who had the voice of an angel and the face of a god and the heart of a hero …
And all this time the altar was being built, so that the fire from heaven might descend.
In the summer of 1967, I came across a magazine at the newsstand. It was called Jazz & Pop, and as soon as I opened it I knew that this was where I wanted to work. So—back in those days you could actually do stuff like this—I wrote a letter to the publisher and asked if there might be any kind of a job there for a journalism major. A couple of months later, she called me and said there sure was.
I was hired as editorial assistant, which meant I did anything that needed doing: interview artists, write features, review albums, work up layouts and spec type and crop photos and proofread and fulfill subscriptions and everything else. It was a magazine whose readership was 87% male, and it was published by four women, so there’s some feminism in action for you.
A year later, I became editor-in-chief. I never doubted for a heartbeat that I had the best job in the world. I had to go to the Fillmore East every weekend! I got to see any band I wanted to see, meet any artist I wanted to meet! It was my job! Even then I knew I was a very lucky girl, but only decades later did I realize HOW lucky—to be there, at that age, with that talent and training, in that place and time, with the best music, the best clothes, the best righteous causes, and, yeah, I won’t deny it, sex drugs and rocknroll.
At twenty-two, I was the editor of a national magazine and one of the Founding Mothers of rock criticism…and I gave thanks in my heart to my Jedi Master Jandoli and to the people I had worked with here who had helped me get there.
In a sense, Bonaventure was even responsible for my meeting my husband. What are First Causes, anyway? But rock and roll wasn’t the only thing I was finding out about…
As a child I had loved the King Arthur stories above all others, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that there was more going on there than fairytales—that there was a secret behind the stories, a secret which, despite being beaten up and left for dead many times down the centuries, was still very much alive. There wasn’t an original name for it—that had long been lost—but the people who knew the secret in modern times called it by various names: Celtic spirituality, Witchcraft, wiselore, Asatru, Wicca, Draoichtas, shamanism. Reader, I became a Pagan.
We had very few resources—not like now, with bookstores and retreats and workshops, dozens of different traditions, acceptance as a legal, legitimate religion. So I had to come at it sideways—through Celtic folklore, mythology, the Grail stories. Which I got started on right here at Bonaventure, and continued at Harpur. Books were all I had. It was enough—it had to be, there was nowhere else for a seeker to look—but soon I needed more, and it didn’t take me long to find it.
By the summer of 1966 I was deeply invested in the spirituality of my Celtic ancestors, which I practice to this day. It and its variants often carry an undeserved negative freight in the public perception, but quite simply it’s the ages-old, original, shamanic, pre-Christian native religion of Western Europe. Exactly analogous to Native American spirituality. Tribal polytheistic gender-equal earth-oriented many-traditioned Paganism, the faith once practiced by everyone who lived west of the Caucasus and east of the sea.
As its Supreme Being it posits a Holy Duality, a Father God and a Mother Goddess, the Lady and the Lord, and it holds everything sacred; so powerful and all-pervasive was it that its hallowed places and holydays were co-opted early on by the Middle-Eastern transplant Christianity, and remain so to this day.
When I first came across it, what I felt was not a rejection of my birth religion—that train had left the station years ago—but a blindingly clear acceptance of the faith that had been waiting for me all along, out there on these hills: a tremendous sense of joy and peace and oneness, a great gladness, the Eternal Yes. And that is still what it gives me. Faith is simply a matter of finding the right window from which to look at Deity, and for Deity to look back at you. I had found my way home to the true faith of my fathers and mothers before me, and I learned that I was welcome.
I became an ordained priestess, then chief priestess of a group of fellow worshippers. And then I met Jim Morrison. And he met me.
There were actual sparks when we shook hands—instant karma, love at first sight, or at least love at first conversation. We were friends for six months before we got romantic, and we were married in a Celtic ceremony on Midsummer Day, 1970, a year and a half after we met.
Jim had been a film major at Florida State and UCLA, but journalism fascinated him. He often said that he thought the interview, and even more so the self-interview, was the literary form of the future, and a whole lot of people took him at his word. He had an IQ of 149, he was the best-read person I’d ever met, and he was a brilliant interview subject: he could talk to ten people in a row and give each one something unique and quotable, and everybody would go away happy, including him.
Jim always claimed he didn’t learn anything in college that he hadn’t already known. I knew what he meant, but it was more complicated than that. Apart from mere factoids, maybe you really don’t learn anything you don’t already know. But what you do learn is how to apply knowledge to your own situation. My whole life I’ve made my living from what I learned at Bonaventure: apart from my go-go dancing career, I’ve never earned a penny except from my journalistic and writerly skills; and, including my go-go dancing career, I’ve never had one single job in which what I learned here wasn’t useful and helpful to me.
It was back then, in the Sixties, a phoenix time if ever there was one, that the world began to change. Jim was a point man, seeing things ahead of the rest of us, alerting us to what we were thinking before we even knew we were thinking it. Because of artists like him, many of us (not all of us—and generational placement had nothing to do with it, there were quite as many unenlightened boomers as hip elders) began to refuse what we perceived as the Negative Sacrifice. We. Just. Said. No. We said we wouldn’t climb up on the cross for the old order. We said “Cancel my subscription to the Resurrection.” (Well, Jim said that...) We said “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t think so!” We said “Hell no, we won’t go!” And, as everybody knows, we didn’t.
Instead, we began the Positive Sacrifice. Like furniture-refinishers of the soul, questioning not only authority but everything else too, we started to blast away the veneer of two thousand years, stripping off hardened layers of racism and sexism, cleaning away the sludge of creeds outworn, societal bad fu. And we got rid of quite a bit.
Still, too many of us got sucked into the old dynamic of living with the mental furniture we had because we, well, had it: it was easy, it was safe, it was comforting, it was exactly what our parents and grandparents had, and theirs before them. But the age had started to turn. Turning not like a ballerina but an ocean liner, its prow holding station while the stern was swinging round through the pivot. The turn was enormous, perhaps the biggest ever. It began to turn in the river, and it is turning still.
Which is why I have absolutely no patience with those who claim that the Sixties failed. Oh REALLY. Hey! What “failed”?! We stopped a war. We removed a President who deserved to be removed. We brought a new ethic to gender relations, race relations, politics and the workplace: women and minorities now have careers we couldn’t even dream about in 1967. Back when it was legal and expected to designate job ads M or F—all the M jobs being cool and promotable and all the F jobs requiring typing. We changed all that. We changed the face of music, writing, film, art, fashion, business, health, communications. You’re mad at the Sixties? Well, you know, the Sixties are mad at YOU!
Not to be self-congratulatory about it, because we messed up a lot, way more than we should have: but in a billion ways, most of them too small to notice but big enough to matter, the Sixties are still going on. We brought them with us. Many of the ideas we fought for have long since been mainstreamed. Brothers and sisters! Children! I promise you, we did not fail!
But we didn’t entirely succeed either. Like Jim, Janis, Jimi, too many of us did not survive the too-long Sacrifice. Not all war casualties come in combat. Artists like Jim changed things, and were changed, but they couldn’t change enough—not alone—and neither could too many others.
We made a fine start. We were pioneers: we set our hands to the plow that broke the plains, we sent the wagons rolling westward —and, like all pioneers, we did this knowing that we wouldn’t see the harvest. You who will live your adult lives in this new millennium, you will see it, or at least a lot more of it than we did; it is your children and grandchildren who will see the real spring.
If we don’t destroy ourselves and the planet first, of course. It’s a time now when that Sixties sensibility is once more desperately needed and once more savagely dissed. But the opposition these days is coming from a different place—a last-gasp-of-the-dinosaurs intolerance that comes from awareness fear rather than ignorance fear: They’re afraid of what they know, not of what they don’t know. They’re afraid other people are right, and that that leaves no room for them to be right.
Got news for you: We’re ALL right. There’s room for ALL of it. That’s something I learned right here, forty years ago.
And that’s what I’d like you to take away from my rabbiting on here tonight: the parable of the Elephant. It was Jim’s favorite metaphor for the truth of so many things. Each of us has got a hand on the Elephant. Some of us have grabbed the trunk and some the ears and some the tail or the feet or the great gray flanks. But we all have a piece, and no one’s piece is any more or any less valid than anyone else’s, and all the pieces of difference together make up the One Big Truth. Oh, and all you really need IS love. I don’t have to remind the people of Francis of that. Believe in the Elephant—maybe even Francis might have—ride the snake, and rock on.
Thank you and gods bless.
My lecture at St. Bonaventure University, 20 April 2006