Living in the Material World

[Photo: Caracas, 1982]

I was undoubtedly a utopian during the first decade of my life, until the materiality of the world became excruciatingly evident to me. What I mean by utopian is that I was conscious of a spiritual and intellectual reality that was peaceful, with very few limits, that felt good and seemed universally possible. Of course, I was a child and none of what I conceived had any theoretical structure to it, I didn’t call it utopia or even know what that word meant. But I look back on those years and realize I was living some form of utopia. A very personal and unreal place that nonetheless existed in my mind.

I didn’t eat meat or candy, nor did I watch TV. My parents were hardcore in their dedication to an organic, vegetarian diet, buying almost all their food at coops and health food stores in Cambridge and Somerville. The only sweet things I was allowed to eat were Tiger’s Milk bars or whole wheat toast with butter & honey. My mother cooked the most amazing breads and to this day she makes the best salads I’ve ever had. My hair was always long and I recall my parents meditating around the house and myself joining them occasionally. I have several vivid memories of hanging out with their guru, Swami Satchidananda, at talks he gave around Boston. One of these is of myself sitting on his lap while he spoke to a roomful of people. At another time, I jumped out of my parents’ orange VW bug after they parked and ran up the sidewalk shouting excitedly: “Satchi, Satchi, we’re here!” and he laughed out loud from a doorway when he saw me. Marijuana was simply another sweet aroma, along with various types of incense, that I grew accustomed to smelling around the house. My toys were often children’s books or records I’d play on a toy record player I had in my room.

Music may have been the greatest marker of utopia for me, as my parents constantly played various records around the house. The Beatles, all of their stuff, is probably the music that stands out the most for me. Even today, when I listen to some of their albums I can still feel traces of that time in the early 70s. I especially recall George Harrison’s first two solo albums, All Things Must Pass (1970) and Living in the Material World (1973). Listening to the latter album today in my car is what brought up these thoughts on utopia, making me realize I really had experienced such a consciousness in my early childhood. (“Trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul...”) Somewhere in the inside cover of that album is a painting of Krishna and Arjuna riding a chariot pulled by white horses. All the songs on it always feel to me as though I were listening to the sound of home, a place where everything is in order. I spent hours looking at album covers, at the gnome statues and forest next to Harrison reclined on his lawn on the back cover to his first solo LP.

When John Lennon died I distinctly recall my father stepping into the passenger’s seat of our car, with the Sunday papers in his hands in La Trinidad, Caracas, and both my parents weeping right there with the car running as they read the news, a deep sadness I felt as though a family member had disappeared. By then utopia was already a memory, I was 10 and life had taken on its more brutal quality. In 1982, my parents went through a long, complicated and bitter divorce that spanned several months and three countries. First our father kidnapped my siblings and me from where we were living in Mexico. He simply told us we were going to visit our grandparents in Caracas and that mom would meet us there. We packed our bags at our house in San Miguel de Allende and went to stay for a couple nights with some Venezuelan hippies my father knew in town. My father bought drugs from them which he sold a few days later in Mexico City.

We took a taxi for the 5-hour drive to Mexico City, where we stayed for several days while my father bought Mexican crafts and clothes at a huge market, stuff he was going to sell once we got to Venezuela. During the whole taxi ride from San Miguel to Mexico City my father and the cab driver talked about the cultural differences between Venezuela and Mexico. In Mexico City, we stayed at a nondescript hotel somewhere near the Zocalo and we’d eat our meals at various nearby cafeterias which seemed to exist in a time warp back to the 1950s. When I first read Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, I felt I was being transported back to those intense, weird days in Mexico with my father.

We spent six months with our father in Caracas, moving between various relatives’ houses and apartments, sleeping on couches, beds and at one point even on blankets and sleeping bags laid out on the floor. I would take care of my younger siblings while my dad was out looking for work and working. Sometimes he’d be hours late to pick us up from school and we would have to wait for him at the front steps of the school without knowing when he’d finally show up. During that time he often spoke to me as one adult to another, and once he said: “All of this will make you an adult a little bit earlier than expected. This is all very hard but it will teach you a lot about life.” It did, of course, and part of adulthood is learning that utopias don’t exist.

Our mother kidnapped us back to the U.S. in December of 1982, with the help of her brother and various lawyers my grandfather in New York hired. When I moved to New York City in 1996 I actually got to have lunch with my grandfather’s lawyer and he told me the whole story of that tense week, when they weren’t sure if my mother and my uncle would be able to get us out of Caracas without my father knowing. He said my grandfather sat by the phone throughout the week, talking to various lawyers and worrying about the operation. The photo above is the evidence of those events, myself and my siblings standing with our mom and uncle, shortly before we left Caracas on a private plane bound for Jamaica, from where we boarded a commercial flight to Miami. It was late December, 1982 – when I finally realized utopia was an impossibility. I found the photo at my mom’s house last summer, among thousands of old family snapshots in her office.

I’ve had the privilege of talking to both my parents about these events and about those early years of my life. These conversations are always fascinating for me because I’m able to travel back in time and sort through all this strangeness with them, seeing their perspectives on their actions and understanding how mistakes take years to be undone. I narrate all this not in lamentation but with gratitude, because those events taught me invaluable lessons. I write about this now in a rushed manner, knowing that eventually I’ll have to describe these events more thoroughly in a memoir or novel. There are details to flesh out, other characters to include. I must learn how to write about the utopia I experienced, its presence in my life today and its impossible yet real nature.


Liz said...

You really should write about this. Memoirs, novel or some 'historia novelada' as they call it.

You transported me to places and situations in just some paragraphs -as usual-.

Guillermo Parra said...

Hi Liz,

I've got to find a chunk of time to sit and start it. But I'm a very slow writer, everything takes me years.

Nikesh said...

Man, Guillermo, this was touching. its a great piece of writing too.

Guillermo Parra said...

Thanks, Nikesh.