1973, December 10: Letter from Peter to G&H

This one was written about six months after the previous substantive letter. There were clearly at least a few other letters and/or phone calls during that gap, but I have no record of them.

By this point we had moved into the new house in Santa Rosa. I gather (from one of the kid letters in the previous entry) that the first two foster kids had arrived a couple weeks before Peter wrote this letter, but he doesn’t mention them at all.

Content warning for another racist quasi-joke (which I’ve elided) and for orientalist generalizations about Japanese people (which I haven’t elided because too much of the rest of the letter is intertwined with them). And for the use of the word inscrutable. Also, unrelatedly, for making fun of an author’s surname.

Here’s a drawing that was enclosed with the letter—see letter for more info.

Plan for altar.
Plan for altar.

And here’s a flyer that was enclosed with the letter, giving an introduction to our church. I think I’m not gonna transcribe the flyer. It’s a trifold brochure on legal-size paper; I’ve scanned the front cover, the inside three columns, and the back cover as three separate scans. (There’s one more column (the one between the back and the front covers) that I didn’t scan, which just has a small decorative icon on it.)

Church of World Messianity flyer: cover.
Church of World Messianity flyer: cover.
Church of World Messianity flyer: interior.
Church of World Messianity flyer: interior.
Church of World Messianity flyer: back.
Church of World Messianity flyer: back.

OK, onward to the letter, which is three pages long and typed on onionskin paper (or similar).

December 10, 1973

Dear Parents,

The spirit moves me very seldom to sit down and write a letter, and I think it's because of the paucity of feedback that I've gotten in response to my missives, all my life. Por ejemplo: I wrote over four stenographer's books of dithyrambic ramblings to Connie Fletcher before I finally got the idea that there wasn't going to be any reply; I used to send shoeboxes of science-fiction books, also letters and Christmas presents to Michael Lyons, for several years before I realized that he was not interested in acknowledging receipt of them; just a month ago a counselor we knew in Stockton asked if he could come and visit us--I wrote back and said to let us know when he'd arrive--the dates he'd mentioned came and went and no word from him as yet; I wrote a three page, very friendly and stimulating letter to five people who'd interviewed me for a job, exploring in greater depth some of the things we'd talked about during the interview--that was three months ago and I expect there'll be no reply (although the director of Plumfield, who sold us this house, didn't reply for three months to my letter applying for a job as counselor--when she did, the letter said, "I think I have something for you," and she sure did!!); and I felt badly about your lack of response to our enthusiasm & excitement when we first began considering buying this house and setting up a group home: but anyway, that's all "water under the bridge" now--now you're the ones who send nice letters and don't get replies very often, and I'm the one who doesn't write . . . so it goes.

Anyway, we want to thank you very very much for the thoughtful gifts you've sent us--it's not only the thought that counts, it's the gift too, and those you've sent have been just what we needed--the flowers for moral support in an emotionally cold house the first night, and the blankets for physical warmth on increasingly cold nights. (We have central heating, but blankets are cheaper than gas...) Handwritten in margin: towels, too

Also, your beautiful grandchildren have enjoyed very much the letters, cards, and books and puzzles you have sent them--I guess that they are much more conscientious letter-writers than Marcy and I are at this time. We're still looking for a nursery school for Joaquin, but we've found a very beautiful school for Jed--it's called Redwood Free School. There are about ten kids, ages about 4 to 8 (ungraded), the teacher is very nice, and Jed really loves it. It costs $40 a month (plus we clean up the schoolhouse a couple times a month), and the teacher is going to start (tomorrow) driving Jed to school and back, in exchange for some of the food we buy so cheaply because of buying in quantity (60-pound tins of honey, case-lots of tomato-paste, etc.)--also when we have goats and a garden there'll be surpluses to barter for services and goods.... For instance, our friend Donna is interested in shearing the long-hair goats we'll have, then teaching our kids how to wash, card, spin, and knit the mohair in exchange for it....

Something we're looking forward to with great joy in our hearts is the dedication of a Sacred Scroll here at Hearthlight (Somewhat racist pronunciation-related quasi-joke elided by Jed), in an altar I am going to build soon (see enclosed sketch). The upper character on the scroll is pronounced "hikari" (hee-coddy) meaning "Light", and the bottom one means "Bright" (I forget the pronunciation, and I didn't draw it quite right, but it's composed of the characters for sun and moon...). The idea is that we want God's Light to permeate our home, so that it may be a center of Light, and so that we may better serve God and help fulfill the Divine Plan for our planet, by helping people to be happy and by helping to build a paradise on this Earth.

 

As you know, the Japanese people venerate their parents and set great store by all of their ancestors. What Marcy and I need to do before receiving our Sacred Scroll, is to say prayers honoring and commemorating the spirits of all of our deceased ancestors, may they go in peace in the spiritual realm. (Or in the "many mansions" that Jesus spoke of...) In particular, we would like to know, if at all possible, the full names, the dates of passing, and the causes of death, of Peder and Ida Hanson, and of Charles and Etta Hartman. (In Japan, this commemoration is done only for the patrilineal ancestors--father, two grandfathers, four great-grandfathers, etc., because it is thought that at the time of marriage, a woman gives up her own ancestors and takes on those of her spouse; but I'm sure the women's movement in this country would never subscribe to such a view, so (better safe than a chauvinist pig) we'll pray for all of them....)

I hope you will understand that this is done not in the spirit of lighting candles and paying a priest to pray somebody out of purgatory, but rather in the spirit of putting flowers on someone's grave--by way of paying our respect to the person for completing his/her coursework assigned by the Teacher in this strange and wonderful University of Life on Planet Earth....

I have been praying for you both, and putting your names on the altar at the church in San Francisco, at the tsukinami-sai (monthly services) and when we go down (once a week) to do go-hoshi sampai (prayer and service in the House of the Lord), that you might be healthy and happy, and filled with Divine Light, so that you will be more and more suitable instruments for God to use (working, as always, in mysterious ways and inscrutable modes...).

I hope you have been well: Jed had a cough for a week but went back to school today, and Joaquin picked it up but he's getting over it now too. By the way, both Marcy and I are totally enjoying a book called "Total Man," by Stan Gooch (that must be his real name, poor fellah)--it relates all the themes of mythology to facets of personality, and these in turn to the physiological structures of our prodigious brains... most interesting. Try it, you'll like it.

Handwritten:

Love from all of us, Peter, Marcy, Jed, & Joaquin

One more thing: on the back of the envelope, Marcy wrote:

The advent calender was a stroke of genius! Came on the 1st, too! I’d just decided to look for one when it came. The kids love it!

Notes

Nature Farming
(From the flyer.) I was familiar with the other tenets of the church that are outlined in the flyer, but I don’t recall ever before hearing that nature farming was a thing the church did. Interesting.
“paucity of feedback”
This is not the only time that Peter complained about people not replying to his letters and gifts. On the one hand, I understand that people like to feel appreciated, and that acknowledging letters and gifts is a nice way to help people feel that way. On the other hand, I sometimes feel like there were various contexts in which Peter felt like he was owed something, and got pretty upset when he didn’t get it. And I wonder whether this situation was as one-sided and consistent as he makes it sound, or whether it was just the usual thing where people are busy and sometimes don’t respond to stuff even if they appreciated it. (I may be feeling a little defensive on those other people’s behalfs, because I’ve never been great about responding to people, and have been particularly bad at it during the pandemic. But I feel like it’s not only me these days; I’ve been seeing a lot of other people posting things lately on social media along the lines of “hey, I still care about y’all, I’m just not coping very well and am not managing to reach out.”)
(…I also feel like he’s conflating different categories of stuff here—for example, years’ worth of unacknowledged gifts to his old friend Mike Lyons seem to me to be pretty different from “I wrote … a stimulating letter to five people who’d interviewed me,” and both of those seem to me to be pretty different from “your lack of response to our enthusiasm & excitement.”)
(…And re that last point: I suspect that after five-plus years of Peter expressing enthusiasm and excitement about huge new life-changing projects that then disappear a few months later and are never mentioned again, George and Helen may have gotten a little wary. But I’m just speculating.)
Redwood Free School
See my blog post about Redwood School from late 2021.
Donna
The family friend whose house in Woodacre I think we stayed at during some part of the six-month gap between letters. I recently listened to a letter that Donna sent us on audio cassette tape, probably sometime around the early 1970s; she was spinning as she talked. I vaguely think that she might have spun yarn from the fur of her samoyed dogs? Not sure.
“the long-hair goats we’ll have”
Probably needless to say, we didn’t end up getting any long-hair goats, as far as I know.
“Sacred Scroll”
I think the church encouraged members to set up altars in their own homes, with (among other things) a calligraphy scroll.
“pronounced” and “pronunciation”
I would say Peter’s phrasing is a little confused/confusing here; it’s not so much that the “character” is “pronounced” as the written word hikari, it’s more that the word that’s written in kanji as is transliterated into rōmaji as hikari. (Or to try to put that another way: it feels weird to me to say that a written string of English letters is the “pronunciation” of a given kanji; I would say that the written kanji and the written transliterations are both written representations of the spoken word in question.)
“hee-coddy”
This is probably the closest Peter could get to writing the pronunciation of hikari in such a way that George and Helen would get a rough sense of how it’s pronounced. (There are lots of ways that non-Japanese speakers might wildly mispronounce the word.) But I nonetheless find writing it this way a little offputting.
the kanji on the scroll
The kanji that Peter was trying to describe here are and . Together, they form the word kōmyō, which has various meanings in various contexts. I’m no expert, but I gather that (for example) in Buddhism, it has several meanings, most of which are related to light, both literal and metaphorical.
I feel like Peter’s framing here implies that the two kanji together just mean “bright light”; but I suspect that he was missing a fair bit of context.
…I also feel like—as usual in these letters—Peter is trying to frame the church’s concepts in semi-Christian terms. I’m not sure whether he was doing that in order to try to translate them into terms his parents might understand, or whether it was in keeping with Peter’s own framing for himself.
“Peder and Ida Hanson, and of Charles and Etta Hartman”
Helen’s parents and George’s parents, respectively.
“patrilineal ancestors--father, two grandfathers, four great-grandfathers”
…I think Peter was confused here; your mother’s father (for example) is not a patrilineal ancestor.

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