Thursday, July 27, 2006

Ceremonies, initiations and other rites

Since I was the founder of Big Gray, people, in the beginning anyway, looked to me to define whatever the hell we were doing. So, I came up with a few ideas. Communes or intentional communities, I thought, ought to at least share expenses and food. Expenses meant we all shared house bills. Right away, that led to the question of how Richie and Sylvia, who had one room would pay their share of the rent. We agreed that room size shouldn't matter, since it was the whole house we were renting together. Therefore, all shares would be equal. (We amended that later on, when people moved to the attic bedrooms that weren't heated.) Couples, we reasoned, ought to pay one and a half shares of the rent, and two shares of the rest of the bills.Thus, a couple would get a "discount" on the rent since they were sharing a room, but would, otherwise pay their own share of utilities and other stuff we bought. We called it the "Couple Compromise". It was our first law, and it stood for 21 years.

Food became our next issue. I wanted to eat together every day, but since our schedules were so different, we decided we would cook and eat dinner together on Wednesday nights which would also be our meeting night. Meetings were always an important part of house politics. Richie came up with the idea of sharing food expenses by rotating the responsibility for buying different food items in our diet. I should mention here that we had all decided to keep a macrobiotic diet (Richie and Sylvia's's idea- imported from California). Alan and Susan weren't delighted by that idea, but agreed to eat their hamburgers "off- premises". So, one week I would buy juice, for example, the most used and most expensive part of the diet, and the next, brown rice and miso.We also supplied nuts, soy margarine, bread,vegetables, beans, tamari and tahini. We kept all of this neatly in the refrigerator and pantry, each item having it's place. (Also Richie's idea -the consummate Virgo) As true macrobiotics, we avoided red meat but ate fish. Normally for fish, we went to a macrobiotic restaurant on East 5th Street in the Village(The Cauldron). This was one of our hangouts and we would often run across each other in there. We also had bottled water delivered which we kept in a ceramic dispenser in the kitchen. This worked well for awhile, but after Jackson moved back, he wanted eggs and meat which would mean keeping stuff we didn't all eat in the refrigerator, so we changed again. But before that happened, Wednesday nights were a lot of fun. We would call home during the day to coordinate the buying of food and come together to cook our communal meal. I learned a lot about cooking from these experiences and the camaraderie in the kitchen was special. Afterwards, we would retreat to the Library for our meeting which was often followed by a drum ceremony. I should mention here that I had been reading about the Plains Indians, a life long interest, so I used what I learned in creating our unique culture. Thus, the idea of the community as an intentional family group with no real leader emerged. Like the Plains People, we had peace chiefs and war (or fire) chiefs. The war chiefs would , by example, lead the people to war and the peace chief would work behind the lines to establish peace. This was never really spelled out, but we evolved this way with Richie or Jaime (usually) fighting to establish a precedent, and me trying to bring everyone else along. Because the two of them were such strong personalities, they would often spar. I took it as my responsibility to keep them both happy. It wasn't always possible, but it solidified our roles in the house. A commune is really a form of anarchy (at least the way we ran it). So, like a tribe, there were no elected leaders- just people with the strongest or best expressed ideas who functioned as leaders. But, people were free to go along with them or not, so there was always a need to find consensus. Over the years, many members griped at the idea of a consensus, complaining that nothing got done that way, but that method worked best (when it worked) When it didn't, you needed a peace chief.

The Drum Ceremony happened because Richie (who played clarinet and saxophone) and Kim (piano and trumpet) were musicians. Also, Jaime, while not a trained musician, had a canny sense of rhythm and could sustain a very lively beat on the drum. We had a conga drum, a bongo, an African skin drum, the steel drum Kim found and a number of other make shift chimes, bells, pots and pans. After a meeting, one of us (Jaime usually) would start a rhythm going and we would all join in, each of us taking a little solo on the instrument of his or her choice. I always believed those ceremonies helped us find a harmony. They were great fun and would often last a half hour or more. At Thanksgiving, Richie's cousin (Kim's brother-in-law)who happened to be first trumpet at the Met joined us with his trumpet and provided some interesting counter points to our collective drum beat. After Richie and Sylvia moved, we stopped doing them for awhile only to revive them for one of our anniversary parties. Then, they became a big public affair. But those early ones were kind of magical.

Richie and Kim were always practicing. When we first moved in, it was Mozart's Concerto in C Minor for clarinet that Richie practiced in phrases which he played over and over. The two of them gave an impromptu recital one day of a television sit com theme they had the music for.(The Danny Thomas show if you remember it) Kim also played the baby grand which Harry left with us. Anyhow, with all those musicians around, it became natural when it came to picking a name for the house, to come up with Big Gray. How many of you readers remember the musicians that got their start backing up Bob Dylan after he went "electric"? They called themselves The Band. Their first solo album was put together and produced at a communal house which they rented in Saugerties, New York (not far from Woodstock). The house which was big and painted pink on the exterior, was called Big Pink, and the album (which everyone ought to own) was called Music From Big Pink. Thus, Big Gray was christened. Kim burnt our name on to a weathered piece of wood which we hung up next to the front door, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wait! I wanted to tell you about the initiation. After having some initial difficulties with our membership, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Kim became our eighth member. It seemed like we would stay this way for awhile, at least. So, we began discussing a way to bring our last three members into the house in a ceremonial manner. I felt like finding this house and this group of people was an amazing bit of luck or fate which saved my life, really. So, the idea of blessing the house and creating an initiation for all of us started to take shape in my mind. Like all of these things, the plan kind of fell together in pieces. We decided we would keep the initiation plans secret. So,on a particular night after Jaime, Sheila and Kim went to bed we five met in the round room. In silence, we crept into each of their rooms, woke them and bid them follow us. Meeting again in the round room, we lit a stick of incense and passed it around the circle after "blessing" the one next to us. After that, we each lit a stick and proceeded downstairs and out the front door. We circled the house stopping at the four directions to ask the spirits of North, South, East and West to bless our endeavor and then came again to the front of the house where Richie had dug eight holes in the lawn. He handed each of us a daffodil bulb which we planted in a circle. Fortunately, it was late enough so no neighbors or passersby witnessed the ceremony or saw us in our "ceremonial" clothes. I know this probably sounds way out to many young readers of the blog, especially if you were never at our house. But let me just leave you with this. Over the years, members of the original Circle of Eight left to go off on their own starting with Richie who was the first to leave about a year later. As each of the eight left, one daffodil would cease to flower that spring! After Kim left (for his second and last time), only one flower remained in the circle. Coincidence? Probably, but I prefer to think of it as the result of the strong magic we imbued the house with on that evening. When it finally came time to leave Big Gray, the last group and I did a closing ceremony reversing the path we original founders took on that first night. Now, it's just an old building again.

1 comment:

Joe Ambrosino said...

I'm commenting on what I wrote here and adding another memory. Part of the house mystique which Kit contributed a lot to was that we were this band of survivors sitting out a possible "end of life as we know it" scenerio. As a hedge against this possibility, we began hoarding stores of food. We had a huge can of miso(soy bean paste), 50 pounds of rice and a gigantic store of soy beans which we kept in empty Red Cheek apple juice bottles.Well, we quickly went through the rice and a great deal of the miso as the end did not seem iminent, but we had dozens of bottles of soy beans for years afterwards. We also had a hundred or more empty Red Cheek bottles in the basement.Kit came up with the idea of recycling the glass by first smashing the bottles . We used a room in the basement to fling the bottles against a wall and gather the broken glass later. It quickly became one of our rituals to smash bottles as a way of relieving tension. We would also invite guests to go to the basement and throw a few bottles against the wall.Red Cheek was great apple juice back then, and smashing their bottles was gleeful fun!