Monthly Archives: May 2013

LIKE A ROLLING STONE (MLS 4)

My Life’s Soundtrack – Part Four

I only ever took acid once. Not for lack of wanting to – just that it seldom came my way. Magic mushrooms, on the other hand, were a staple part of my diet. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but I did have numerous – mainly bad – trips on fungi which failed to make me a fun guy (excuse the bad pun)!

This is now Sept or Oct ’87, in Portland, Oregon, out partying with friends. That is, Leon & Gary, and their friends:  I’d met these teenage brothers 2 years earlier after Doug, their truck driver Dad, had given me and Sue a lift for several hundred miles. We had then stayed with Doug and his family at his house in Portland.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned to the States in ’87, Doug and his wife Lyn had separated, but Lyn very kindly resumed the hospitality. She also found me work with painter/decorator Ray Galloway, who was a key player in my journey to new life, and I remain incredibly grateful to both Lyn and Ray.

This night in ‘87, much weed had been smoked, and a fair amount of crank snorted (not crack, but crank, which in more recent years hit the UK press as ‘crystal meth’ or methamphetamine), before a single acid (LSD) tab was ingested by each of the group. It seemed to take several hours for us to ‘come up’ on the acid – then in the early hours Leon invited me for a drive down the freeway. He liked to night-drive whilst tripping.

Remember the racing car game, Pole Position? I used to play it in the Brighton arcades, and now with the all the lights and coloured cat’s eyes, the road before us had become an animated arcade screen, like Pole Position. Only even more vibrant. As we drove in spaced silence, I assumed that Leon was sharing the same experience.

Band on the Run by Wings played in magical, crystal clear quality in my head, and I assumed this was running through Leon’s brain too, as he drove quietly and confidently down the night-time Oregon highway.

Later, though, when real music played on the radio, Bob Dylan came on, interrogating me with incisive questions about my itinerant life:

…When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

I was abruptly confronted with my loneliness. The song pointedly proclaimed my inner aloneness…rootlessness…aimlessness…homelessness…friendlessness….invisibility. At this time, I had no passport or ID after everything had been stolen (details later), compounding my anonymity.

I had nothing to lose and no one. Perhaps I had chosen that path, or perhaps I’d been steered, destined by childhood conditioning, down the lonely road. Either way, it was no longer something desirable.

Taking hallucinogenics may heighten or release existing emotions, and this moment, this encounter with Dylan’s words, confirmed semi-suppressed feelings already emerging in my soul.

Don’t get me wrong. This LSD trip was not a religious revelation. I don’t subscribe to George Harrison’s description of his first acid trip, as the late Beatle recounted:

“The first time I took it, it just blew everything away. I had such an incredible feeling of well-being, that there was a God and I could see Him in every blade of grass”.

Many ancient cultures and religions see the use of hallucinogenics as a pathway to some kind of divine consciousness.

In my experience since that time, God the Father, who is love, does not readily share space with our addictions and our chemical-induced mind-messing. After coming to a simple faith in Jesus a short time after this night in ‘87, the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit eluded me until I desired him more than drugs, music or anything else.

When I finally reached that moment in 1989, the sense of being infused with his love and forgiveness left me with no desire to get stoned or drunk ever again. Satisfaction comes in the shape of sacrificial love.

Hallucinogenics and the true God, in my view, do not easily mix. He wants the very best for us and that best is himself living in us.

But prior to this night trip through Oregon, a variety of (non-drug-related) experiences had been gradually shaking my atheism.

The origins of the universe, the purpose of existence, and the strange world of the microcosmos – questions that haunted and taunted me – now all seemed to point to something or someone greater than the human mind can comprehend. The fact that existence existed blew my mind.

Simultaneous to an evolving conviction that ‘God’ was the only logical explanation for the existence of anything, emerged a pattern of experiences on the road, of either coincidental good luck or provision by a higher power.

On one occasion, with no prospect of earning any money, and just $28 to my name, I lost a $20 bill.

I had jumped an open freight train and enjoyed the unique experience of journeying 1700 miles of wild western landscapes, over about 36 hours, through several states, from Boise, Idaho, to Chicago.

I was meeting with my sister, who was on holiday visiting a friend. We hitched together for a couple of days from Chicago to Detroit, and caught a ride with a father and son who were on their way to a Pentecostal conference. Ruth and I sat in the back, as the middle-aged son drove. During the journey, the elderly Dad in the front passenger seat turned to us, and without asking our permission, took our hands and prayed! It was a long, fervent, heartfelt prayer. I’ve never remembered what he prayed, even at the time, let alone now, but I’ve never forgotten the effect: I felt uplifted, upbeat, like nothing could go wrong.*

This godly father and son, as they dropped us off in Detroit, not knowing about my $20 loss, gave us $40, which Ruth left with me, as I had the greater need. It seemed like God or Something had doubly covered my loss.

Another time, after spending the night in a homeless hostel, I stepped out onto the city streets that were beginning to simmer under the Kansas sunrise, with no money, no food, and one cigarette to my name. I’d just walked out the door when I was approached by a stranger asking for a cigarette. “Why not!” I thought, and gave him my one last smoke.

kc-skyline

Later that day, a driver I’d hitched a lift with offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. As we continued along the road, he told me that when he’d bought his usual pack of cigarettes that morning, he’d discovered they were Buy One Get One Free, so he gave me one of the two packs, not knowing about my gift to a stranger that morning. God or Something (?) had given me 20 times return on my giving. (I quit smoking tobacco just a few months after that).

Coincidence? Maybe.

At least once, I looked up to the sky and suggested jokingly, “Someone up there likes me”!

After a few more such ‘coincidences’, I began to wonder seriously, “Maybe someone up there really does like me”!

As I began to think maybe there could be a God helping me, and as I also met travellers who carried virtually nothing, I started to wish I wasn’t ‘burdened’ by my big rucksack with sleeping-bag, tent and clothes and could have the opportunity to see whether ‘God’, if he was there, would provide if I had literally nothing!

One time, I ended up travelling with a gay guy called Richard, who was in effect moving house and had all his valuables with him, including a ton of bling! As two males hitch-hiking together, it’s pretty difficult to catch rides, and we found ourselves stuck going nowhere on the freeway.

In hindsight, what happened next was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but chaotic, messed-up people don’t always make the wisest decisions. We hid our rucksacks in some bushes a short way from the freeway and walked to the nearby town where we’d heard there was some kind of hostel. The next morning we returned to our rucksacks, to find a few of our possessions strewn around the ground and the rest gone! All Richard’s gold jewellery. My passport, credit card (which I never used but kept as a back-up), tent, sleeping-bag etc. All gone.

Richard was understandably furious. I didn’t like to admit it to him, but I felt relieved to be travelling really light and strangely happy with anticipation at a new opportunity!

The next few days were difficult, as we ended up in some bad company, so as soon as I could I slipped away on my own again, eager to see whether God would provide. Very soon, I was taken into the home of a wonderful couple, who gave me everything I needed for now.

Some drivers who gave me lifts were Christians, who took the opportunity to tell me about how their lives had been changed by Jesus. Their faces seemed to glow with genuine passion and their eyes seemed to shine with joy. Jesus said the eyes are the window to the soul.

Amongst people of all sorts of faiths and denominations, I remember catching a ride with one particular young Mormon man, who was out to spread his message. But the message and the messenger were dry – there was no glow, no vibrancy, about this man. No hint of transformation, of Holy Spirit power. Unlike the Christians.

I argued with these drivers. I disagreed with preachers at nightshelters and hostels run by Christian missions and the Sally Army. Some of them made you sit through a talk before being given a meal. Although I wonder about the ethics of this now, I guess it worked for me!

Then I worked with Ray, the painter, in Portland. He’d been a Christian for 3½ years. He told me how his life had been turned around, and his lifestyle confirmed his words.

As we worked together, I told him what I thought about Christianity, how I believed in some Buddhist ideas and how the Universe was probably just a dream of itself (figure that one out?!). Over about 6 weeks of working and debating with Ray, my initial arguments turned to questions, and my protestations turned to serious consideration of the claims of Christianity.

It was during this period, that Bob Dylan, via Leon’s car radio, questioned my free, solitary lifestyle and demanded my honesty to myself:

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Interesting that just a few weeks later, some time around my 22nd birthday in October 1987, after deciding that I actually believed this Christianity stuff and genuinely prayed for the first time in my life – that England, became my ‘direction home’.

As Jesus came into my life, I sensed an irresistible call back to my home country, to do something with my life. This land that I’d wanted nothing to do with, now had a pull on my life, not because it had something to give me, but because I felt I had something to give to it.

Amazing how I came to find dignity, value and identity as a child of God. No longer a complete unknown, but fully known. Known to the Father, and beginning to know myself.

Astounding that since that first moment of faith in Jesus, I never, ever felt lonely or alone again. Ever.

How does it feel now? Pretty darn good!

 

*After the father and son had dropped us off, I left my sister in Detroit city centre, where she was catching a bus into Canada.

I felt completely fearless – even more so than at the start of this trip, as described in Here I Go Again. In fact, looking back, this was an extension of that initial trust that everything was going to be OK – trust that had been sown deep in my heart, first through those words of Jesus in Matthew, now strengthened through this old man’s prayer.

Detroit was a big city and I knew I’d have to walk several miles to reach the start of a freeway to begin hitch-hiking. Having worked out which direction I needed to go, I just walked.

The city had a reputation for some pretty dangerous areas – I had no idea where these were or what they were called, but I wasn’t concerned.

I walked mile after mile through street after straight residential street. After a few miles, I became aware that I hadn’t seen a white face for a long time, not that I was in any way concerned by this observation.

Despite my obvious conspicuousness – a white stranger with a big red rucksack – I felt far from threatened. People sitting on the steps of their homes waved cheery ‘hello’s to me as I strode through their neighbourhood. It felt like community.

I’d walked about 8 miles, when a white couple suddenly pulled up in their flashy car, wound down the window and with a sense of urgency, warned me: “What are you doing here? This is a dangerous place. Let’s give you a lift outta here!”

I tried to protest, “No, this a great area, people are really friendly”, but at the same time wanted the lift, to get moving on.

It seemed that my fearlessness after the old man’s prayer was founded. From somewhere deep in my memory, I vaguely recalled the words of the Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”.

Perhaps Detroit’s crime statistics confirmed people’s fears of this area, but my experience at the time felt like a lesson in white people’s prejudice and racism. As a white stranger in a black area, I was out-of-place, but had been warmly accepted.

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Here I Go Again (MLS 3)

My Life’s Soundtrack – Part Three

Untold adventures reeled out mysteriously before me into the endless American landscape, as I stood apprehensively at the side of the freeway, thumb outstretched, recalling the Whitesnake song:

Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind,
I ain’t wasting no more time

…’Cos I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams

The words described my life to a T. Here I go again, hitching round the States. The lonely, insecure drifter, born to walk alone, to ‘bum around the world’, to travel free….free from possessions, responsibilities, relationships.

This time, solo. Freedom to change plans without discussion, be totally impulsive, go anywhere any time. Here I go again, this time on my own.

I’d built up to this for the last eighteen months. Ever since the first trip round America was curtailed by Sue’s return to University in October ‘85 and our subsequent split in ‘86 (see My Life’s Soundtrack: Part Two – Easy Lover), all I’d wanted was to return to the States, visit all the places I hadn’t got round to the first time, then continue on to India and the rest of the world.

There were similarities and differences between the first trip and this one.

Once again I planned to stay in the States for several years, and once again I only stayed 6 months. Although my plans didn’t extend to taking 50 years to see America (a year for each state) as some travellers I’d met suggested, I did intend to take my time immersing myself in cultures across the country, taking in states I hadn’t ventured into in ’85.

I worked out later that I hitch-hiked roughly 15,000 miles this time round – about 5,000 more than on the first trip. 15,000 miles between:

playing poker over a bottle of whisky in Pensacola, Florida…

being threatened with a blunt kitchen fork by a guy high on alcohol and cocaine, if I didn’t take my trousers off…

painting & decorating, and snorting crystal meth, in Portland, Oregon…

enjoying a charity Mexican breakfast in East LA (complete with eggs and chillies)…

running as fast as I could from a supermarket in Mississippi before the cops arrived, after being caught shoplifting two packs of 200 cigarettes, to sell to truck drivers…

and sleeping under the stars at the base of the Grand Canyon.

And much more in between.

This time the travels came to an end after 6 months, not because I needed to come back, but because I no longer needed to travel. The restlessness of my heart had been cured. But more on that in Part Four.

This trip wasn’t spontaneous, unlike the first. I’d saved my money, working at a timber yard near Lewes, and by buying and selling small amounts of cannabis – keeping myself supplied with my own ‘needs’ in the process. I’d saved up the cash for my flight and enough to live on for a couple of months or so, until I could find work over there.

I closed my bank account, handed in my notice at the timber yard, sold or gave away all my possessions except those I needed in my rucksack, and ended my relationship with my then girlfriend. Although I’d been with her for a few months, I had no great emotional attachment, though I’m not sure she felt the same way. Looking back, I was quite ruthless, determined to pursue my aim.

On this second trip to the USA, I entered via the Canadian border at Windsor / Detroit. I figured that if they didn’t let me in, I could at least explore Canada instead. On my first visit, with Sue, we’d been foolish enough to buy single flights and therefore encountered a lot of questions at Immigration at Newark airport, with our measly few hundred dollars and big rucksacks. They finally let us in for 2 weeks and we stayed 6 months, working when we could (illegally) and living frugally.

This time I was fully prepared, with an address I was supposedly going to be staying at and a return flight that I wouldn’t be using. Even so, sweat poured off me at Immigration, as I anxiously expected them to produce some record of my previous over-stay and to turn me away. Instead, there was no problem and I was free to enter the Land of the Free!

Here I go again, doing what I knew. A seasoned hitch-hiker, with expertise in all the tricks of the trade. Feeling slightly hesitant, but only because it was so long since I’d been on the road, and because in all my worries about whether they’d let me into the country, I’d actually made no plans as to where I was going to head for first!

There was one crucially significant difference this time, though. As I started out on this new expedition, I had an inherent sense that everything was going to be all right. At the time I called it a ‘positive attitude’, but it wasn’t a deliberate decision to keep an optimistic outlook. For no rational reason, I was firmly convinced that even if I got attacked, robbed – whatever happened – everything would be OK in the end. I was still an atheist, but a couple of years later, as I reflected on this time, I understood.

For some strange reason, in 1986, about a year before returning to America, I’d started to read the Bible! I’d always claimed that this ancient book, or collection or books, was full of contradictions and myths. Of course, this was just what I’d heard from other people – I’d never actually read the thing! Inexplicably, I suddenly decided it would be a good idea to read it and make up my own mind.

I bought a little, old, second-hand, King James Bible (the one with all the ‘Thee’s and ‘Thou’s) for 10p from a charity shop in Dundee (where I was living at the time), and proceeded to read the New Testament from beginning to end, followed by the Old. At the end of which I’d be able to give an informed opinion.

So my reading began with Matthew…

I made it through a few chapters of this Gospel, then forgot all about it, and the Bible was abandoned.

I barely started the New, let alone the longer, harder, Old Testament. But, as I know now, the Bible is a rather special book….

As I absorbed the teachings of Jesus in that first section of Matthew (known as the Sermon on the Mount), I was gobsmacked.

Love your enemies, not just your friends. Forgive them, love them. Pray blessings on your persecutors. Wow! If the whole world did this, I reckoned, there’d be no more war.

Even at the time, this had such a profound impact on me, that when Sue’s new boyfriend threatened me with a gun and physically chucked me out of his house on to the ground (see Easy Lover) – after my initial, instinctive thought of chucking a brick through his car windscreen, I opted instead to write him a letter of apology for having burst into his house! Never mind the fact that he’d nicked my girlfriend, stolen my reason for living, assaulted and humiliated me! I was apologising to him. I also forgave Sue.

Love your enemies. Be reconciled to them, if at all possible. Who knows, they may change in response to your actions. And even if they don’t, at least you’ve done your part in ending this world’s pandemic of war and conflict.

Even now, 27 years later, this teaching, with its ultra-revolutionary potential – and the possibility of God enabling us to live it – fills me with excitement and passion. My heroes these days are people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who themselves, having been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, have applied these earth-shaking principles in real, international conflicts and in personal, individual struggles, before a global audience. It blew my mind then and does now.

How is it possible that this then-atheist was willing and able to live out this teaching? Who knows? But I believe now that God is not limited. The Holy Spirit is able to influence the hearts and minds of humans of all persuasions. And, as I stated earlier, the Bible is a rather special book.

It claims that faith comes to people through hearing (or reading) its words.

As well as the radical teaching on forgiveness, I was stunned by Jesus’ words about how God clothes the fields with wild flowers and feeds the sparrows, so why should we worry about tomorrow, about what we’ll eat or drink? Will not God take care of us? Somehow, something about this idea resonated in the heart of this young man who didn’t even believe in God!

A year later, standing by the American freeway, intuitively knowing that everything was going to be OK and there was nothing to worry about – I didn’t realise then, but later on I came to understand that faith had started to bud in my heart through reading those words of Jesus.

Conscious awareness and acknowledgment of God came months later, after I’d seen first-hand evidence for this rebuttal of worry, in the form of food, money and shelter being provided at just the right time, over and over again, during my travels.

Only this week, having googled the lyrics for Here I Go Again for this blog, did I discover that the song contains these words:

Though I keep searching for an answer
I never seem to find what I’m looking for
Oh Lord, I pray you give me strength to carry on
‘Cause I know what it means to walk along the lonely street of dreams.

I had no idea previously that this song made any mention of faith and prayer. How strangely prophetic was Whitesnake about my life!

But for now, in May 1987, here I was… on the freeway, poised to venture down ‘the lonely street of dreams’ for what was to be the very last time.

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