Is there a time in your life that you can look back to a particular time and think “that’s when everything changed, right there”? When I met Barbara, our conversation led to that statement about her life. A statement that has stuck with me and been a good source of reflection about my own life.
I met Barbara in her office as the day was winding down. As we talked she mentioned a time in her life that changed who she was in a fundamental way. I was interested where a change like this could take place. Interestingly enough, it was in a hippy commune.
Barbara was 17 living in Texas. Up to that point in her life she had been raised in a conservative home, with typical conservative ideals. She loved to do her hair, put on nice clothes, and worried whether certain boys liked her or not.
That summer her mom received word that Barbara’s brother had gotten a girl pregnant and was planning on marrying her. Barbara was asked to travel to the northwest and visit him, see how he was doing, and come back and report to mom later that summer.
What Barbara found was her brother was living in a two story house in a small town in Oregon. The number of people living there varied daily, but there was a core of a dozen or so people that worked in a local health food store (or was it a restaurant) that was owned by the commune. They lived in the house as a free thinking, free loving commune. After talking to her brother and his girlfriend, Barbara decided to stay and live.
The changes were immediate. Her curly hair and excellent hygiene were shunned by the other occupants of the home as trappings of a capitalistic society run amok. She had to wear jeans and t-shirts, wear her hair straight, and shun perfume and deodorant in order to fit in. She told me that on occasion she would still sneak a small amount of perfume. She just liked the way it smelled and didn’t want to give it up entirely.
I asked her about the way this experience changed her life. She had told me it was profound, but I hadn’t really heard why. She told me that there were so many different ideas that would migrate through the house with the people who came to live there. They would sit around in the evenings, often late into the night, and discuss everything from religion to politics to the war to dreams of what the world could be. For a young girl who had grown up in a conservative home in a conservative community this was all really new and wondrous to her. She felt her mind open up to the flow of new ideas and drink them in.
I asked about the drugs and free love that usually came with those kinds of experiences. She smiled and continued talking about religion.
She said that this was her first exposure to eastern religions – to Hinduism, Buddhism, and many philosophies that were influenced by a mixture of many beliefs. Even Christianity took on new meaning to her as she listened, discussed, and debated with the countless people that moved through that community.
At this point in our discussion Barbara paused, with her head down for a moment. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said “It changed me. I came back from that place after seven months, but I was a very different person”. In the pause that followed that statement, I found myself reflecting on how brief seven months is when compared with a lifetime–and how one small thing can have such a profound effect on the rest of our lives.
Here’s what I think based on my conversation with Barbara. I think in that brief time she learned that it is good to move out into the world and embrace the people and ideas that you find there. I think that she had to give up a part of herself to be there, and there were times it was hard, but overall the experience was worth it to her because she came back enriched, a wiser form of her previous self.
So I’m left wondering, what are the experiences that have taught me more about the world? Have I had enough of them? As I’ve gotten older have I built layers upon layers that protect me and my way of thinking from the world around me, or have I broken those barriers down and welcomed the experiences and thoughts of those around me? Do I surround myself with like-minded people, or do I have those in my life that will challenge the way I think?
Am I too old to have a 7 month, or 7 day, or 7 minute experience that will alter my life–that will leave me enriched, a wiser form of my previous self?