A 1950 Chevy

Black 1950 Chevy car - On turning 70

A 1950 Chevy, similar to the one owned by the author’s family

Vandeventer apartments where author lived as child - Turning 70

The family’s early ’50s apartment building in the central city. Across the alley, long gone, was the Burger Bar mentioned.

I remember our 1950 Chevrolet: how the leather seats smelled, and how our skin stuck to them on a hot summer day when we were going on an outing, loading the car in front of the Burger Bar across the alley from the apartment building where we lived in the bowels of St. Louis. Sort of an image of postwar America … that and maybe cowboy shows on TV.

Just before I started kindergarten, we moved to the suburbs. Here, my idyllic life was shattered one day by a cataclysmic psychic event.

Alley behind author's childhood home in suburbs - On turning 70

The alley—the scene of lots of childhood play—behind the house in the inner suburbs, to which the author’s family moved in 1953.

I was in my room one Saturday, trying on a new pair of blue jeans Mother had left for me. As I admired my body in the full-length mirror on one of the doors, I happened to notice that the other door, across the room, was cracked open and a pair of eyes were staring at me. That seconds-long glance by my mother at a vulnerable moment seemed to light me on fire! When I came to myself, my body felt like a burned-out, crashed airplane. A seven year-old boy, I sat there feeling I could never leave the room again: not for dinner, school or anything.

I did leave, of course, but carrying a deep burden of shame that had to wait 20 years for release.

I finally went down to dinner awhile after being called, but only after changing my pants. I became, for the next two decades, “the Khaki kid,” refusing to wear blue jeans and unable to even utter those words. Much of my vulnerability had fled to exile somewhere deep inside. To compensate, I developed a parent-and-teacher-pleasing persona. I went through the rest of childhood with that “in-house older brother” to deflect frightening input and protect my vulnerable side.

The “habit”

The people around me in my world must have noticed something was going on with me, especially when, not long after that, I erupted in a system of severe nervous tics—repeatedly raising my shoulders, jerking my head, lifting my arms and quickly turning my palms up and down several times in succession.

I’m not entirely sure, even now, how to read this behaviour. It may have been that I wanted to hit someone. The only response it ever drew was the annoyed admonition, “Don’t do your habit!” Everyone had their hands full of their own issues, I imagine, and didn’t have the capacity to look very closely at me.

Eventually, the twitches more or less went underground. Even today, though, long after the psychological aspect of my conflict has been resolved and the shame lifted, I still sometimes feel the physical impressions of the tic, like a ghost working at my muscles.

I was able to function with apparent normality through elementary school, where I was first encouraged as a writer by my sixth-grade teacher; junior high, where I had an exhilarating taste of First Love; high school, and briefly being a “big man on campus” (and very much “believing my own  publicity”); and college, where I became radicalized politically after an incident of manhandling by campus security.

At age 21 I took LSD and—rather predictably, I think, because of the unfaced trauma I carried from childhood—things began to unravel. Eventually, I suffered a nervous breakdown, mitigated after a year by anti-depressant pills, which were relatively unknown then.

Finally, healing

Face of young Meher Baba - On turning 70

Meher Baba, as he appeared in the late 1920s

All of this somehow got me to my “appointment” for a genuine Awakening. One day in January 1971, in the words of the songwriter Ira Gershwin, “Love walked right in.” As I questioned an old friend about his belief in Meher Baba, his Spiritual Guide, a transcendental Love began flowing out of a photo of Baba on the wall, and completely enveloped me and the entire world.

This experience began the healing period of my life. However, healing, too, unfolded in stages. Five years after my Baba experience, I suffered another breakdown that was possibly even more devastating than the first. This one seemed to be generated by pressure to bring my old wounds to the surface—pressure I tried hard to resist. Through a series of events that seemed to bear a clear divine stamp, I found myself, six months later, sitting in a room across from Ram Dass (AKA Richard Alpert), hearing him ask me the question, “What are you thinking about?”

Ram Dass - On turning 70

A recent photo of Ram Dass at his home on the island of Maui

In response, I poured out all the shaming desires, some of which seem to have resulted from my early trauma, that I’d never been able to tell anyone about. Each time I was rewarded by, “You’re beautiful!” or “I love you!” from the dear man sitting near me, who seemed uniquely suited to lead such a troubled soul through the maze of his sexual shame and out the other side.

A brief disclaimer

Rainbow Woman painting by author Max Reif - On turning 70

A 1992 painting by the author, depicting recovery from the trauma described in the article. A protective goddess safeguards the figure’s space.

I’ve told these stories elsewhere in some detail, and mention them here only in passing, as landmarks on this day of my turning 70, an age I never thought I’d reach.

Looking back now, I can see the unfolding and spreading in myself through various stages of life, like the slow growth of a great tree after its first sprouting, way back then after the Second World War. It hasn’t been an easy road, even after such blessed healing connections. Some periods were marked by “infestations” of problems that led to stunting; but then, other cycles with ample rain, sun and nutrition, so to speak, led to more luxurious branches, representing creative Inspiration and the ability to work and love—the two elements Sigmund Freud once spoke of as the hallmarks of maturity.

Early morning peace

And here I sit, surveying all of this in an early morning of quiet peace on my 70th birthday. This peace remains unaltered by the current shenanigans in my country’s political sphere.

I love to quote Kierkegaard’s witty, pithy maxim: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Truly, there is no clue what’s coming, as we “live forwards.”

As of now, though, I’m still spending 30 hours a week doing music and stories and bubbles and companionship with small children, working in a preschool aftercare program. I do “Food Rescue” deliveries for White Pony Express twice a week. My wife Barbara and I share a blessed life in a lovely home. I write and paint and play music on a regular basis. It seems about as good as it gets in this realm of Impermanence. Once again, this morning, Barbara and I spoke of our amazing good fortune.

The image of aging

I’ve been realizing lately that I have no image of a septuagenarian in our society. To the child I was, such a one is just an old person—retired, for the most part. But I’m here, going strong. In fact, sitting here in the quiet, without a mirror to see my white hair, I could be the 20-year-old I once was. In daily activity, I’m really only limited by a mild back injury I got digging a “special” hole to surprise my preschoolers several years ago in the sandbox.

The mystery, the miracle of life continues to unfold. A person does his or her best to “witness” to the wonder of it all, but in the end, it’s like the Incredible String Band sang, way back in the ’60s:

Whatever you think,
it’s more than that,
more than that

Coloured space mandala - On turning 70
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image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 5: Wikimedia Commons; image 6: ramdass.org; image 8: 5DWallpaper.com; all other images by Max Reif