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Chasing utopia

May 7, 2015

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: words that promise the potential of personal agency and bliss. It’s human nature to search for the fulfillment of such a promise, yet individuals chase after it in a multitude of ways. Author Margaret Grundstein visits us today to talk about her own search for happiness, chronicled in recently-released Naked in the Woods.

 

Grundstein’s memoir follows her journey from college student to utopian resident and beyond, capturing the reader’s heart along the way with the raw emotion and frank contemplation so characteristic of her writing. So, did Grundstein ever find that contentment? Are happy endings possible in the chaos that is life? I think we’ll let her post speak for her …

 

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“Who comes with me wherever I go?” I ask, sitting cross-legged on the floor, my right hand tucked in my lap, my left discreetly tapping two little boots that I have cut from black construction paper to the inside of my wrist. It is raining outside. In front of me, ten toddlers sit nestled against the comforting chests of their parents.  I wait a beat. After all, this is Los Angeles and timing is everything.  They know what’s coming.  We do this every week. 

 

“Mr. Hand!” they shout.

 

I pause, and up he pops, my thumb and fingers poised at the end of my arm.

 

“Those are beautiful new boots, Mr. Hand,” I say.

 

He lowers his head at my wrist, striking a modest angle.

 

 “Are you feeling shy?”

 

 “Yes,” he says, nodding slowly.

 

I take in the trusting faces that are my audience, each one a delicious dumpling.  Their lips are parted as they watch with clear eyes, not caring if my voice and Mr. Hand’s mouth are out of synch.

 

Gradually Mr. Hand lifts his head, feeling safe among familiar faces, and with my help shares his excitement over his new rainwear.  Then he moves on to his real job, picking the child whose name will open our ritual welcoming song.

 

This is my utopia.  Walk through the gate to the preschool I founded in Venice, California, and the world drops away. Friendly is the operative word and love is my currency.  I need this.

 

Forty years ago I sought another kind of utopia. Back in 1969, I was part of a group of radicals at Yale trying to create a world where we could live in innocence.   It had seemed possible.  San Francisco celebrated the summer of love, Martin Luther King taught us the power of nonviolence, and Woodstock was iconic before Max Yeager’s fields had even dried. Then armored tanks rolled across the campus.

 Guests

We had hoped for peace, ignoring the consequences of our growing militancy as students occupied campus buildings and organized strikes, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam and racism at home. Nationally, the civil rights movement shifted with the arrival of thirty Black Panthers in paramilitary berets and leather jackets at the California State Assembly, flaunting rifles and shotguns to protest arms-control legislation.  The country, watching on television, shuddered and looked to the locks on their doors and windows.  Cities burned, assassins murdered Malcolm X and MLK, and the National Guard, dressed like invading aliens in gas masks and goggles, killed four students at Kent State and injured nine.   This was revolution.

 

KatrinaLenaSwaying together, singing “we shall overcome” was no longer enough. The tanks lumbering through my neighborhood, clanking down my street, brought home the futility of confrontational tactics.  We needed a new plan, one that was plausible and released us from the politics of mutual hate.   If we couldn’t change the world we would change ourselves, building communities, where, as the Beatles told us, “all we need is love.”  In Vermont, New Mexico, Virginia, and Oregon--any place where land was available and people sparse--students dropped out, looking for a more peaceful solution.  The back-to-the-land movement showed us a way we could love ourselves, each other, and the dirt that fed us. 


We wanted to be stardust.  We wanted to be golden.  Naked in the Woods is the story of that quest, told through my experience.  But like any utopia, even the one I presently enjoy, we cannot, as Joni Mitchell sang in her iconic song Woodstock, escape the devil's bargain.  Returning back to the garden may be impossible; trying is not, because, as she reminds us … life is for learning. 

 

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 NakedintheWoods

Margaret Grundstein, in addition to directing the preschool in Venice, California, practices photography and owns a private practice of psychotherapy. She has a B.A. from Goddard College, a Masters in Urban Planning from Yale University, and a Masters in Family Therapy from Loyola Marymount. Naked in the Woods is her first book.

 

 

Included photos courtesy of Margaret Grundstein.

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