Bio-Bits

A Taste of India: [This section will go to bottom of page at some point, but here while the Aug. 5, 2020 post is fresh.]

We’ll skip earlier adventures–Gus’ quickening in the air en route, Delhi, Bengal, Taj, Bangalore, Srirangapatna (children’s clinic, etc.)–to our time at the Ashram “on the way to Japan,” 3 days turning into more than 6 months, where people of many backgrounds & cultures practiced an individualized program of practices, studies & service, each implicit in the others.

From our first darshan to our personal good-bye, Mother was a strong presence throughout….The “free progress” educational approach she encouraged was in harmony with everything Virginia already felt, as well as with Aurobindo’s integral yoga & views on evolution, the whole person, & the multiple dimensions of sentient being.

Whereas Aurobindo’s ideas & poetry were transmitted in a large collection of powerful writings, Mother’s influence flowed mainly through direct practice, nowhere more so than with encouraging each child to develop from within—what some might call self-directed & others divinely inspired. (Some of the principles are outlined in Education and the Aims of Human Life, a book by a former administrator at the International Centre of Education, including a student-centered approach to the whole person.

During this time, Gustav Rabindranath grew from two 1/2 to about 9 months, his joy a central focus, while his mother also practiced a form of traditional dance & batik, along with both group meditation (some with Mother’s music) & individual meditation (e.g., at samadhi, Aurobindo’s flower-strewn sarcophagus, where visitors sat in silence, sometimes resting their foreheads….

Her yoga was never a collection of doctrines or dogmas, but a practice more or less independent of words used to describe it. Its spiritual component had many elements quite distinctive from conventional religious conceptions. When the Mother was asked about the role of religion in Auroville, her visionary township dedicated nearby in 1968, she replied it would be present only to the degree inhabitants hadn’t developed beyond it.

It’s a subtle issue, however, because respect for teachers & devotion to principles, ideals & humanity’s most exemplary instruments of progress naturally call forth the religious impulse–at least its root meaning, re-ligere, re-linking, as distinct from conventional organizations.

In its traditional forms, yoga schools may focus on different aspects of human potential–hatha on the physical, karma on good works, others on the vital, on the mind, &, far from last or least, bhakti on the loving heart…. Virginia’s practice included each of these, each in its own way, but it didn’t much extend to talking about them or interpreting implied metaphysics for others….
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It was an amazing life, almost any way you slice it–starting with her early rural girlhood outside Reno, where her father, Frank Richardson, became a central figure in a university fire-storm that had major influence on her sense of justice, fairness & right action, as well as on Nevada history.

During the family’s forced ‘exile’ in Hawaii, she attended a village school & practiced hula, while her father rocked the bird-world with discoveries (like a living o-o habitat) that drew luminaries (like Roger Tory Peterson) to their remote location.Meanwhile, the fight to save the university from autocratic McCarthyism continued at a distance.

Extensively covered by national news magazines & local media at the time, it ultimately changed the trajectory of the university & Nevada history in fundamental ways. Some felt the story had been told before with a starkly different ending–in Walter van Tilburg Clark’s classic, The Ox-Bow Incident. Walter himself already understood what his narrator only realizes too late, in the last chapter., however, and his role in the outcome can be considered one of the decisive factors.

A local hero only recently returned to the university he’d grown up at & graduated from–and not personally threatened by what was happening–Walter knew a lynching when he saw one, no matter how academic. Though he didn’t know Frank well as the time, it was not something he could just passively let pass, with the same sin of omission as the remorseful narrator in the novel.

The day Ginny’s father was fired, her mother remembers Walter showing up at their door with a gift-wrapped bottle that he handed her more or less without a word. In fact, they had not known each other well, but did know what they were fighting for–& what they were up against. He saved his words for where they might help, starting with his own letter of resignation, which brought the matter to the national news (Time, Newsweek, etc.); even Einstein spoke out.

Cue the theme to western classics like The Magnificent Seven, as Frank & Walter were joined by young legal guns drawn to the cause by the importance of the principles involved (& character of participants)–despite explicit threats to their careers. Warned to stay away from the case, one young attorney (Bruce Thompson) reportedly said he’d get involved if it meant never practicing law again. (Bruce went on to be elected a university trustee, get appointed federal judge by JFK, & have more impact on area justice than anyone of his generation.)

When people stand up against injustice, people of principle & character tend to stand with them. In Frank’s case, this meant certain colleagues, a few attorneys & a possibly decisive group of impeccably fierce “university women,” including the family’s neighbor, the artist Edda Houghton–mother of Ginny’s lifelong friend, Kitty, another paragon of principled will, whose life was also woven with Ginny’s throughout.

Kitty, Edda, Walter, & her parents were not just historically significant, but part of her all her life. The story of how such people stood up for their sense of what a community should be–against the attempt to turn it into something fundamentally different deserves fuller discussion {–a link to be added ASAP, along with documents from the Richardson Archive, e.g., Frank’s picture on cover of national news mag & Walter’s letter of resignation}.

Thanks to Walter, who became my mentor the last years of his life, ’69-’71, it’s part of my story, too. Frank & Walter, it may be noted, were among the “quietest” people I’ve known, least inclined to push an argument. Though both were gifted teachers, they were each great listeners at heart–how Frank heard the o-o; how Walter heard just how people thought & spoke.

Frank was the Hawaiian born son of an army officer & Stanford-trained island teacher. An eagle scout, he earned his PhD in biology at Berkley , specializing in ornithology. A Sierra-Club friend & tent-mate of Ansel Adams, he was equally at home in desert, rainforest & high Sierras, where for years he did the winter snow surveys. In 1952, he was also Chair of the University of Nevada Biology Dept.

He was neither political ideologue nor partisan for anything but good science, responsible citizenship, & right treatment of others. What put him in the cross-hairs of an attack came more or less out of the blue: a new university president directed by a chief regent with what might be called “an autocratic agenda.” His first order of business, he announced to the faculty, was establishing a clear chain of command.

Frank’s first sin, it seems, had been taking his turn as head of the local chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors) at a time when the nature of the university would be challenged by an administration that regarded faculty as subordinates hired to follow directions, & implement policies defined by their superiors.

As a member of the Standards Committee as well, Frank was accustomed to issues like those related to admissions being matters cooperatively addressed with significant faculty input. When news circulated that the new president was considering the elimination of existing requirements (e.g., high school degree), Frank sent him & some colleagues copies of an academic journal article with information relevant to the decision.

Contrary opinions weren’t welcome–even for private discussion, it turns out, as Frank’s final transgression was simply allowing discussion of the changes taking place to go forward in an off-campus AAUP meeting, though the “word” had warned against it. He & the group’s vice-president, another biology professor, were summarily fired, with another group of ‘malcontents’ allowed to keep their jobs by signing a letter pledging loyal cooperation….

Suffice to say it was one time when the good guys won. When the dust settled, the Richardson family returned to Reno only long enough to establish the principles, seeing their part of the fight through. Walter encouraged Frank to take a more fitting position in a bbetter run institution. Aside from field projects & sabbaticals in wild & exotic locations, Frank finished his career as a distinguished professor at U.W. & zoological curator of the state museum, a mentor to many budding scientists & now well-known artists.

Ginny worked summers as a lifeguard, starred in the school play (as Anne Frank), graduated from Shoreline High & “won” a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had her father’s gift for being at home almost wherever she was, in other words, whether in wild & natural country or human worlds of knowledge, the arts, & experience . Two bits worth noting before moving on–one from Reno, one from Seattle.

In Reno, their close neighbors along Plumb Lane were the Houghtons, including mother (& artist) Edda & daughter Kitty, Ginny’s 1st roommate–in the hospital nursery! Born a few days apart, they grew up as neighbors, more or less like siblings in different households. A clubhouse of their own sported its own banner. Insights on Virginia’s own nature can be found in notes from both Edda & Kitty over the years. [Insert examples…?]

Kitty’s life was itself remarkable–Peace Corps in Nepal, U.N. in Bangladesh during its bloody independence struggle, PhD in linguistics, training in international finance, Commerce Dept. assignments from Vienna to Shanghai, later life in the 99’s (famous group of women pilots), inspiration for the Catherine Houghton Arts Center at the White Mountain School in New Hampshire, and, among other highlights, Gus’ “godmother.

Virginia had other close friends in both Reno & Seattle, but Kitty remained close, sometimes dropping in from the sky in her little plane (once with daredevil Nepali women pilots on their way to a 99 event). Susie Middleton & a few other humans aside, Ginny’s closest friend from Seattle might have been Crocus, however–a wild crow rehabilitated & released after an injury, who showed up at her upper story window each morning for a greet-&-treat as she woke.

Crocus disappeared when Ginny flew east to college–yet showed up at our wedding there 4 years later! As we faced the Justice of the Peace in her parents’ living-room, we looked past him through the large window facing the front yard, to where her father had set a stuffed black bear en route back to the museum. Crocus sat on the bear’s head during the short ceremony, then resumed its old game of teasing the family’s black lab, dive-bombbing with corn cobs.

Crocus seems to have had a cousin in college, Iris, in far off Cambridge, an injured bird of some kind, maybe from the commons ‘Cliffies walked through en route to & from classes, rehabilitated by Ginny & her roommate Carol in their room, in violation of dorm rules. They made a sign to hang on the door, with a drawing of the flower & the name IRIS, when Iris was out in their room, re-learning to fly, so their friends wouldn’t just open the door.

Carol and Ginny were in one or more musicals together. Ginny often remembered her as a dancer, calling her in French something like “les jambes,” “legs.” They had some fond times in Tucson recently, where Carol seems to be dancing still. Ginny took her French to another level, meanwhile, spending a year between sophomore & junior years in Paris at the Sorbonne, studying language & culture, especially the arts. She traveled widely, albeit on a student’s budget, including Greece & Spain.

Back at Harvard-Radcliffe for the fall semester in 1963, we may both have already been in shock when we met–the evening after JFK was shot. A few weeks later, she listened to my 21st birthday jazz show on WHRB, featuring the Audubon All-Stars, Yardbird’s “Ornithology,” & all the pieces I could find related to birds; the rest is love-story history.

We became formally engaged in front of Widener Library during the next Valentine’s Day blizzard, with all classes cancelled & almost no one about–except, it seems, Erich Segal, who described the scene in Love Story, in which she teaches him what a snow angel is, as we more or less then made a circle of them together. [Segal was at Harvard at the time, and the book out sometime later. We told the story to Ali McGraw once, at one of Victor di Suvero’s Santa Fe shindigs, but never contacted Segal to ask….]

I’m not sure what courses & professors Ginny considered her favorites, though I know she loved one on old lit with Alfred, maybe on the oral epic. Not so impressed with Watson’s bio, despite his Nobel Prize, but had great respect for the ethno-botanist Shultz, as well as for Eric Erickson, whose “Lifecycle” course is the only one we took together (though in different sections). Another favorite of hers might have been at the Design School, but stressful, as her somewhat shaky architectural model threatened to fall apart as the deadline approached.

During our two college years together we loved jazz & flamenco, discovered Ravi Shankar & Rabindranath Tagore, ate ice cream by the bucket, enjoyed Jacques Cousteau, tropical fish, Hermann Hesse, Kipling’s Kim, cross-country drives, camping off the grid, mountain hikes with her family, alternative realty friendships with Buddy & Trudy, Ron, Martha & Jerry….

We had no clear game plan, but an accidental elevator meeting Virginia had with a Radcliffe staffer ended up leading to a teaching offer for both of us at the Selwyn School just outside Denton, Texas. Our explicit deal was to take lower pay in return for lighter load, leaving time for other interests (e.g., writing, outdoor adventures, adding to the family). We didn’t stay around for graduation, but headed south for Texas–where we arrived at the school at night, & dunked in the courtyard’s rock-pool, only learning later it was a favorite of local snakes, especially an occasional Cottonmouth. (Rattlers, rabbits & tortoises were far more common in the surrounding fields.)

At the time, there were lower, middle & high schools, the last both day & boarding. As the fall term approached, it seems two or three of the other recently hired faculty either never really existed or resigned before starting, and we were drafted to take charge of the boys dorm & fill in “temporarily” on the otherwise uncovered duties–classes, coaching, play-directing, even driving the bus on a few hairy occasions. As it ended up, when the dust settled, the headmaster & his wife ran the girls dorm, while we ran the boys’, switching off as “faculty-in-charge” on alternating weekends.

Ginny taught 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th grade sciences, 10-11th grade biology, French I & II, and possibly a few others. As much as possible, she took her students into the field, & outside. Students started bringing her rescued tortoises, most of which she gave a good head start toward a field with a pond. A few hung around our faculty apartment at the dorm’s end, showing up for a treat, like a strawberry or chomps on a banana when she got home.

If I needed to choose 3 or 4 bits from her/our boarding school time, they’d have to include: adding Raga, our faithful long-haired shepherd, who later saved our lives on possibly more than one occasion; losing would-be daughter Maya at about the 6th month (with headmaster’s insensitivity to the medical contingencies having a bearing on our Peace Corps interest); & finishing with a bang, co-directing JB for the graduation play (with highlights including a censorship drama & revival 17 years later in an amphitheater named for one of our former young actresses).

Given how little we knew going in, i.e., when we signed up for India 37, a Peace Corps program bound for West Bengal, we multiplied our know-how many times over circling the globe. Of the 100 trainees, we were possibly the only two at training to have explicitly asked for a West Bengal posting–, thanks to the Tagore, poet of the Gitanjali, & Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy.

First there was training–starting in Columbia, Missouri, housed in war-time barracks at the campus edge, with classes & field-work scattered about. Organized in a hurry as part of a geopolitical maneuver in which the federal government suspended some aid to India with one hand & promised an inflated number of Peace Corps volunteers with another, our program was supposedly “agricultural extension,” i.e., to help Bengali farmers grow more & better rice.

The fact that less than a handful of the 100 trainees had ever grown anything (besides grass, perhaps) — none a single grain of rice–might have more of an issue but for the “Peace Corps spirit,” which was not based on existing expertise as much as on improvising in whatever ways seemed useful.

When trainees arrived, the fact that 5 of the 100 trainees turned out to be women–all spouses or fiancees of male trainees–seemed to surprise organizers, who concluded that the program as conceived was unsuitable for them. In true Peace Corps spirit, the women turned this difficulty (i.e., challenge) into an opportunity. Imagining their best services (e.g., child care extension), they organized their own training, even assisting with live-birth deliveries at the local hospital.

Virginia’s interest was more than theoretical, as we discovered in mid-training (on the Q. T.) that we were expecting! (Working back, it looks like our last wilderness camp in the high Cascades, just before flying to Missouri, had done the trick.) The pregnancy presented a dilemma–since the Peace Corps then had a rule against sending volunteers who either had dependents or were pregnant.

Once in country, however, pregnancy could be a different issue entirely, mostly up to the local Peace Corps doctor & administrator, one to evaluate medically & the other in terms of effect on assignment. With a program about child-care, one might imagine some potential advantages in some hands-on personal experience, having a child.

Relevant to our personal issue was an initial shock just after reaching our assigned room, when a knock on the door produced a clipboard-holding Returned Volunteer staff member as surprised at seeing Ginny as she was at seeing him. Dennis had graduated from her high school a year before she had, in her brother’s class. (Her brother had gone off with one of the earliest Peace Corps groups, to Columbia.)

Dennis had been stationed in Bengal, and knew conditions far better than anyone in the group or staff, so we confided in him for guidance. He strongly advised keeping our info private until settled into our assignments. It seems a number in his program had children in country, generally enhancing their relationships, so the local doctor & director would likely both be highly supportive, &, like him, even consider the situation an advantage…..

Two bits worth noting, one each from training & travel. The first is that the men’s training program started to fall apart well before finishing. The problem went beyond the fact that all our rice died in the November cold, as might have been expected. It centered around the language program, as all our Bengali speaking teachers had taken offense at aspects of the administration.

Along with a few other mates, Virginia & I did our best to help negotiate at least a band-aid solution–a good turn that would come back to bite us later…, when in country, we were taken aside & told we were being assigned to a politically sensitive district. A story for later, as it encouraged us to divulge our little secret earlier than advised, i.e., before settling in.

The second bit happened en route from Beirut to New Delhi, on Air India, in the dark high over the mountains with our group, when our little secret quickened, giving his first kick…..

Well, the best of India is yet to come, Delhi to beloved Bengal, Japanese rice farm, back to Delhi, meeting our friend Raj Batra, meetings at the Taj, Bangalore, Srirangapatna, Scott’s Bungalow, Virginia’s work at the children’s clinic, cobras & kraits by our priest’s hole on the Kauveri, Sangam, St. Martha’s, & eventually on to the ashram, Pondicherry, school, Auroville..etc., in progress separately [eventually in a clickable file into which I can more easily include some eye-popping photographs?].

[to be continued….]