In loving memory of Esther Silver, among others

10/17/2013

In its heyday, the consciousness of Inverness didn’t merely exist: it was on unapologetic, if low-key, parade. As an East Coast refugee arriving in 1971, I was astounded. Who were these people, dancing like loons around fires at Drake’s Bay—men and women, old-timers and newcomers, gray-haired elders with grandchildren riding on their shoulders—sharing wine and more controversial substances? 

I was dazzled by the beauty of the place and by the living example of gutsy, engaged advocates unafraid to confront prevailing norms long before Watergate. For the first time I saw a community functioning altruistically. It wasn’t just the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area or Point Reyes National Seashore; it was the endorsement of content above profit, the drive to make life count. 

I’d once feared that my radical credo would alienate me for life, but here I discovered activism wasn’t simply tolerated, it was energetically promoted. Yes, I thought to myself: yes.    

The elders were particularly committed to ecology, sanity and principle. It was no accident that parents were joining their out and proud children on the sawdust-covered floors of gay bars in that white-haired boy of cities, San Francisco—or that one of the authors of the United Nations charter had a home here. 

Esther Silver was a standout. In her early 50s, she’d grown up on a Petaluma chicken farm in a secular Jewish community in which kids felt at home running in and out of any of their neighbors’ houses, much like youngsters in Inverness. 

At Berkeley, where she earned her Ph.D. in philosophy, Esther encountered the anti-Red scare of the late 40’s. Pressured by the government, the university withheld degrees until students signed loyalty oaths. Esther’s dissertation had been accepted. Now it was blocked. But if the witch-hunters expected the young woman to capitulate, they’d underestimated their prey. “Naturally, I refused,” she told me.

Instead of being awarded her doctorate, Esther became a professor’s assistant, but for her, integrity was non-negotiable. If it cost her a tenured professorship, so be it. Nor did her ethos stop on campus. One day, the mother of one of her children’s friends picked up her daughter from Esther’s house. They left, but moments later the doorbell rang. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Silver,” the shamefaced woman said. “But Emily told me she forgot to thank you. And tell you that she had a very nice time.”

Esther didn’t miss a beat. “Maybe she didn’t have a very nice time?” Bewildered, the woman gave Esther a look as if to say, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” Years later, as she was telling me the story, Esther asked, “Why should a child feel obliged to pretend? If she didn’t want to say something, she shouldn’t.”

By the time I’d realized Northern California really was another world, I knew I’d never again live back east. And indeed, I stayed. With the hearty encouragement of elders and peers, I came out and discovered my vocation as a poet. Without their support, I doubt I would have developed the quixotic syncopation of social outlook, proactive politics and nascent spirituality that shaped me as an artist and thrust me into the forefront of gay liberation activism.

All along, families in Inverness were behind me. They listened to my poetry and came to see my wild underground theater in the city. The more I found my way, the happier they were. My parents, on the other hand, gave up. If it wasn’t shameful enough that I was gay and not concealing it, I’d left Philadelphia for people they called, “dropouts and bums who live in trees and who don’t count anyway.”

In the early 80’s, Esther opened a bookstore in Point Reyes. It was more than a shop, though: it was a meeting ground for lively discussion and readings. With her hair going white, she stayed every bit as biting, especially about Christian zealots. “No one burns more with wishes for hell upon those people,” she told me stoutly.

After she had a serious stroke in 1999, she shifted gears. “I don’t want to talk about politics any more,” she said. “I’m tired of being angry.”

“But Esther…?” I frowned. “We’ve been raging over politics for 30 years. What will we talk about?”

“I don’t know.” 

So I hatched a plan: I’d call each morning to read her a poem. (Esther loved poetry; her favorite was “The Owl And the Pussycat.”) Over the ensuing years I read her a poem a day. Of course, we’d also shoot the shit.

One day she told me that she just wanted to see her grandson graduate from high school. “After that, I don’t mind dying.”

“How long will that be?”

“Three years.”

“Well, if you pop your clocks early, I’ll put Muslim flags on your grave,” I warned.

“That wouldn’t be so bad,” replied the early Zionist, one now appalled by Israel’s militarism and abuse of Palestinians. “But I’d really be offended by Israeli flags.”  

“Then that’s what I’ll put there,” I threatened. And donate to the NRA in your name.”

“Okay,” she said. “Then I won’t die. But no Israeli flags.”

Since I wasn’t ready to give up on her, I proposed a deal: for each year that she stayed around, I’d write a new verse to “The Owl and the Pussycat.” 

What could she do? Esther loved the poem. And that’s how that tradeoff began: 

 

By monsoon they tired, and so retired

To the village of Champling Mews

Where Pussy produced what the proud

Owl deduced

Were fascimiles, first one, then twos.

Thrice blessed in cahoots, they lived 

in Old Boots

 Safe from marauding Jonglies, 

Paw tucked in wing, they choired to sing

And prance to the flight of the stars

The stars 

The stars

And prance to the flight of the stars.

   

Thus it went: every year a new verse to keep Esther alive. A craven move, true, but I was getting so much out of our time. We went from Chaucer to Eliot before settling on Shakespeare, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the one we agreed was the greatest, and whom Esther called “my oxygen,” Emily Dickinson. 

I read to Esther until two days before she died, in 2009, when a hospice worker cradled the phone to her ear as she was unable to hold it. She told me, “I love you.”

It was a blessing, but one of so many. The way she listened or remarked on a word was so attuned and perceptive; I became a better writer by reading to her. If I’d set out to be selfish, I couldn’t have hit the jackpot in a bigger way. As Esther told me, “If Idealism is a goal, you beat yourself up. If Idealism is a standard, you go with your heart. Then you know no child should go hungry and that people shouldn’t kill.”

Now Esther is gone and few of the old-timers remain. I am even older than they were when we met, and I realize the importance of passing on a living inheritance to youngsters. 

Although our national purposes are more complex nowadays, I still see shining examples of what principle in action can mean no less clearly than when I looked down in wonder from the cliff at Drake’s Bay to see families dancing together around fires on the beach to the accompaniment of drums, flutes, rattles and tambourines, with children straddling shoulders, growing up blessed by a village. 

 

Adrian Brooks is a former Inverness resident, poet, playwright, performer and devotee of Ramana Maharshi who lives in San Francisco, writes books about vanguard counter-culture, supports charities in rural India and contributes to the Huffington Post.