Having been born and raised in Main Line/Rittenhouse Square Philadelphia when the East Coast's multi-tiered class system was still dominant, I've seen a lot of changes in 67 years. When I was a boy, no one questioned Authority. Then along came Martin Luther King (for whom I was a volunteer) and Vietnam, (which I protested very early on) and everything was turned upside down.
The 'up' wasn't only the high of belonging to a generation, which seemed committed to wide-scale social progress; it was drugs, in my case. The magical mystery LSD tour led by the Beatles swept me through Woodstock to San Francisco in time for the last days of the hippie revolution, something which gelled perfectly with my Quaker sense of activism.
Throughout the early 70s, San Francisco seemed an "island in time" as gay liberation moved front and center. As a vanguard artist in that revolutionary culture, I still conceived of the country in terms of polarities of consciousness: the east coast vs the west coast. For me, idyllic California represented everything that I was trying to escape from. It was the new and organic vs. the old and stale.
But even long before Reaganomics "trickle down economics" hit, and AIDS descended, and high tech offered a wholly different vista of The Future, lines drawn geographically had blurred. In 1985, when I found out that I'm HIV+, I left the US and went to live in India. I'd been there twice for fairly long stretches. Now I spent 10 years boomeranging between Europe and Asia, concentrating on my spiritual development since I believed that I was going to die of "the gay plague."
But when protease inhibitors became available in 1995, I moved back to California to avail myself of the medication and to study with a spiritual teacher carrying on the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, the great saint of 20th century India, who lived most of his life in silence. Ten years had passed, years in which I'd accepted Death as natural. And I had grown.
But San Francisco had changed. The tiny city by the Bay was under intolerable pressure from the new world economic engine of Silicon Valley. My once defiantly Bohemian city was now vanishing. Oh, its beautiful landmarks remain, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge and splendid hills. But the character or nature of the place was undergoing irrevocable change.
Growing older, I've seen a great paradox: the upper middle or upper class life I'd tried to get away from in Philadelphia had transplanted itself to move West. Now California boasted its chic wineries and gentrification which translated into minorities being uprooted from San Francisco and forced out. So they left- unable to afford the skyrocketing rents. And "new people" moved in, sometimes apologetic and, aware, somehow, that they weren't the same sort who'd created such a storied place.
One of the most surreal features of this shift was to see the new similarities between east and west coasts. Some of the symbols of white privilege are different here. But there are many ways in which the unfortunate template is maintained or perpetuated. Meanwhile, to my surprise- perhaps I should say "shock" since I had believed that racism had been fairly successfully addressed decades ago, at least on an axiomatic moral level- the ugly beast returned. Or was exposed, just as mean-spirited and vicious as in the days of Jim Crow.
And so, I see a North/South divide again. A nation of police killings. A country, which, still fails to heed the lessons, which Dr. King taught us: that everything we do matters. That every choice has social and political consequences. Violence escalates. The beautiful green parks of San Francisco are going brown. They call it "the new green." But I can't help calling it tragic: the inevitable outgrowth of pollution and environmental ruin, which we (hippies) were protesting in the 60s.
When in India, I was forced to face the Hydra of my own ego and see the ways I create my universe. It's humbling to realize that absolutely no evasion will work; that we must face Truth "as is." Stripped bare, it's frightening, yet liberating, to realize that to acquire more means nothing if we're divorced from our own Self. And yet, even if we manage to center ourselves independent of the pressure to conform and move in lockstep and maintain "groupthink", there is still the reality all around us: a world out of order. A white society still plagued by delusions of Success and its own toxic racism.
Thus, I have gone from the east coast to the west, and then to the East and now back to the West. Strangely, I've seen the east come west as big money follows opportunity to golden California. In doing so, it obliterates the old sense of California being ahead, or out front of, the rest of the nation. After finding myself in India, I returned to see the browning hills of a once-green city; farmlands gone to dust; tinderbox forests burning every summer and no end in sight.
My journey returns me to a personal paradox: the need for peace within even at the risk of closing myself off to exterior upset. But that is what I wanted to get away from; it's why I came to California in 1971- not to shut down but to be open, more engaged. I was blessed. I fulfilled my personal destiny. Still, finding myself numbed by the murders in Charleston, I want to cocoon and tell myself: this can't be happening again. Surely, America must have realized some basic truth by now. Surely, we must have evolved past this sticking point, to be so hemmed in by race. No. Sadly, that is not so. And so I come around the far turn of my life in a different America where East came West, but one in which the North/South divide- socially and politically- still haunts us with the unfulfilled promises of a nation which bled so much so long ago.