February 15, 2012

Coyote reflects on wild dogs and the next 1,000 years

Civics Lessons
By Joyce Kleiner

I interview people for Mill Valley’s Oral History Project. I love the insights it gives me into our town, and the lessons I learn when people invite me into their homes. Most recently I interviewed actor and longtime Mill Valley resident Peter Coyote.

Peter’s home looks a lot like a tree house, the kind children dream of living in: a series of interconnected and cozy spaces suspended high in the redwood trees, away from the rest of the world. Of course, the house isn’t really suspended in the air, but the illusion is complete. This contradictory yet simultaneous sense of interconnectedness and “awayness” is a metaphor for the activist-actor-writer-Buddhist priest’s life.

As I settled in for our interview, Peter made me a cup of loose-leaf tea. Soon we were engaged in an afternoon of discussion focused less on the actor’s career and more on his life in the 1960s; Mill Valley then and now; his writing; counterculture movements; politics; Jerry Brown, Jerry Garcia, Gary Snyder and Marshall McLuhan; corporate greed; Spanish and Yiddish; the interconnectedness of all things; anarchism and shared bathrooms; and how he went from Peter Cohon to Peter Coyote: a story that involved a peyote-induced hallucination that seemingly transformed him into a coyote.

Coyote described changing his name as a way into a new identity. “Peter Cohon,” he told me, “was completely covered with other people’s expectations … I was no longer that guy.” That story will be familiar to those who read Coyote’s memoir, “Sleeping Where I Fall.” They also will know that Coyote arrived in San Francisco in 1964 with plans to get an MFA in writing. But Haight-Ashbury’s cacophony of unconventional lifestyles and philosophies seduced him away from academia. He soon joined the political-theater group the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and later the Diggers, a contingent of anarchists challenging every conceivable social convention. That led to many years of commune living.

Toward the end of our afternoon together I admitted that I didn’t understand the resurgent interest in anarchism. What did Peter, who had defiantly lived the principle for so many years, think about it now? He still believed it had value. Anarchism, he told me, is not the same thing as “anarchy.” “Anarchism is a political philosophy,” he said. “It stresses decentralization … people will organize themselves locally, create representatives and do what they do without the need for a state.”

I remained unconvinced that anarchism made sense. Should it be the voice of the Occupy Wall Street Movement? I asked. “I don’t know that anybody can say what the dominant voice of Occupy Wall Street is,” he said. He saw OWS more as an amalgamation of all sorts of people and perspectives. “The idea of coexisting with divergent points of view is America. I think that the OWS people are doing that. I think there are all kinds of people from the wacky to the sacred … and I think they work it out.”

Eventually young idealists come across something that conflicts with their beliefs. Did he think that was an important moment? “Yes,” he told me, “as long as you’re not frightened by it, because your thoughts will reorganize themselves and come together at a higher level of complexity … The fact that it’s not as easy as you thought it would be, or not as clear, is part of your maturity.”

A longtime Buddhist, Coyote recently became ordained as a Buddhist priest in the layman lineage. He drew on this experience when I asked him if he believed that true change takes more than one person’s lifetime to achieve. “We call our Buddhist work the Thousand-Year-Project; we think it’s going to take 1,000 years for Buddhism to soften America … I won’t see the end of it.”

I still had questions about anarchism. Anarchists often speak about the dissolution of private property and boundaries. I asked Peter if he still believed that communal living based on that philosophy worked. “I think that philosophy needs to be modified,” he told me. “Everybody needs their own space.” Reflecting on his years of commune living he said, “You find the boundaries by breaking them … When I came home one day and I found all the doors taken off the bathrooms because some a— had decided that privacy was a bourgeois preoccupation, I’d reached my limit.” Yeah, that would have done it for me, too.

I came away from the afternoon freshly aware of the value in listening to ideas that may diverge from my own. Just listening, I thought, is powerful — even resulting in change.

Joan Didion once wrote: “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Peter’s office is dappled with talismans from his past, including his favorite photograph of a coyote. “It’s so wary, and feral, and alert,” he said. I would agree. Peter is unapologetic about his life choices, but neither does he live in amnesiac nostalgia. Though his writings and tokens nod to his past, his gaze is fixed on the future, on the next instant, on the next 1,000 years.


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]