One of my good friends, he got out of Vietnam, and on that day he stopped eating meat, he changed his life after that. It was a profound experience for him. I know another guy who lives down the road, he joined the Amish afterwards, he learned to speak German. He went from having one kind of ideology to a completely different one because of his experience in Vietnam. So there were profound experiences available to people there, but for some reason that wasn’t meant for me. Because of the way that I had been raised I would’ve had a difficult time with taking someone’s life. Not that I was beyond….
Were you a hunter?
My father and I always hunted as I grew up.
We didn’t hunt deer. We hunted pheasants and rabbits and so forth. And oddly enough we both stopped hunting at the same time. We just decided we wouldn’t do that.
I hunted as a kid, but I pretty much stopped when I no longer lived in Wisconsin.
What happened with me is after I ended up breaking my back it seemed as though life was denying certain experiences to me, and I rebelled against that. And one of those things was: I was going to have a gun and I was going to go out in the woods and I was going to hunt. And so I did that for a while. And one morning I drove my car out into a field and it was dark and the moon was still out and I got out of the car and I loaded my gun and found a place to sit in my wheel chair and was alone. The sun was just starting to come up, and two deer came galloping over and stood about a hundred yards from me, and I shot them both. And they died. And I just thought, “Whoa, I guess that’s the end of that.” I just didn’t want to do it again.
That wasn’t the first time you had shot a deer?
No, there was just something that inside me thought, “Boy, you know, here they were bounding over there and now they’re dead.” And it just bothered me in a way that hadn’t bothered me before. I think of it sometimes in terms of archetypes, to use a Jungian expression. These archetypes in our life represent, on the ground level, our instincts at work, but they’ve become conscious momentarily. We have avenues of action we can pursue. In order for that avenue of action to open up for us consciously, that archetype comes alive. It’s like you have a whole array of figures that represent different things you can do. They’re all there all the time but unless they’re lit up they don't work for you. When one lights up it’s calling to you. It’s saying, “This is the way for you to go. There’s meaning here, there’s meaning in this line of action, here.”
And somehow in the experience of shooting those two deer that morning in that particular situation, the stillness of the morning, the aliveness of the deer bounding up and the fact that they seem to have willingly brought themselves right there and that we were participating in the same event that ended their life had a profound effect on me, and I don’t want to do it anymore.
Hunting, for me, was my father. That was a thing we did together. I wanted to be with my father and I wanted my father’s approval and I just loved everything about hunting with my father. I loved it. My dad grew up loving to hunt and fish. I loved to hunt and fish, but as I got older I learned, “You really loved to hunt and fish with your dad. Hunting and fishing for you was spending time with your dad and those experiences in and of themselves lost a lot without your dad.”
We go through many changes in our lives, and that was one of them. I used to be a hunter and I’m not anymore…. Who I was and hunting were two things that I could feel good about—that identity—for a while. And then it changed.
Yes, because we are not one thing. We are huge. We are porous vehicles and experience rinses through us and we participate in and with each other, but we are not the things we participate in.
Is that at odds with the concept of fate—that we are on a predetermined course?
I believe that we have our own particular destinies, but I also believe that we make our own destinies by participating in them. I think it’s wrong to think of those as mutually exclusive…. We have a tendency, because we think in terms of causal relations—cause and effect—we think of events as being caused by prior events, and this is a fairly effective way of understanding our lives. But there’s also a way in which we can see events that lead us to them. We are being forced forward to certain events that are just coming towards us, and we can see that we’ve been preparing for that event our whole lives. Both of those are true.
After I moved up here and before I broke my back on my motorcycle, I had weeks of premonitions that that was going to happen.
I had dreams. I was working at a county home at the time, at the Sauk County Health Care Center, and I had gotten rid of my motorcycle because I had become afraid of it. I was taking too many chances on it, so I had given it to a neighbor. I had dreams in which I was paralyzed and doctors were poking pins in me and asking me if I could feel them, and these were weeks before I broke my back, and it took me a long time to try to figure out that…. “Well, you were being warned. Why didn’t you listen to that?” And I ended up thinking, “Well, that was an event that had been coming for a long time and I was getting prepared for it. My life was preparing me to meet that event.”
There’s a way in which all events at all times are fixed somewhere and they all happen at once in an eternal sense, but then, because time pulls them out, they happen in a linear fashion. But there is a connection with our futures and our pasts. They’re linked together and they just simply play out through our experience, but the connections are there and sometimes we can glimpse those connections; we can see that we are participating in something that is not temporal, and the participation is multilayered. Everything participates in it all the time all at once. The human form is not only a form that allows us certain kinds of perceptions, it’s also an enormous filter that filters out all the others to give us this particular rendition of experience. But the experiences are multileveled and everything participates all the time all at once and there’s a relation to everything…. We have this enormous brain and that brain is a filter. It renders certain things in a certain way to make this type of life possible, just as the life of the deer is rendered in certain ways, and a tree and a blade of grass. Everything is connected. It just seemed to me that that was one of the things I had to come to terms with. "No, that accident was meant for you."
If you had given away your motorcycle, how did you find yourself on it?
Well, I’d given away the motorcycle, but I gave it to someone who couldn’t start it, and he tried to start it for several months. Then, when he got it started, he was so happy he brought it over and showed it to me. And I took a ride.
Do you mind talking about this?
No. I was living here with my first wife, and we had just had a child. My first daughter was two weeks old. I broke my back and she moved to Madison for a while. I had a very difficult time. My body didn’t respond well to the injury, there were a number of complications, and I spent a better part of two years in the hospital. And by the time I came back here I had to completely relearn how to live outside of an institution. It was a difficult period of time. I was in a lot of pain. I became addicted to narcotics. You can’t really treat chronic pain with narcotics. It just doesn’t work. Narcotics give you the law of diminishing returns. It works good in the beginning and it doesn’t work good after a little while.
Were these narcotics that were prescribed to you?
Yes. I had doctors who were sympathetic and they would give me morphine, and I would inject morphine, and it was quite good for a little while.
And you were writing throughout that?
How do you explain that—discipline?
No, it wasn’t discipline. I suppose you could call it the disease if you wanted to, if you looked at it from a certain angle. Once I discovered writing as a young man it was something I needed to do in order to cope with myself. I didn’t feel sane unless I was writing. Writing gave me a way of focusing on my experiences that allowed me a certain level of equanimity, and without it I didn’t have that. If I don’t write I don’t feel right. It always offered me a way to be able to calm my mind and to keep from becoming depressed and to basically understand myself and work through difficulties. Through writing it feels like I’m participating in something meaningful—a dialogue.