I found this photo of a young me.
It was taken either late 1967 or early 1968. The setting is a pub in Stockholm (which I believe is still there) called Sturehof. They had the best scampi ever.
At that time the me-making consisted mostly of attracting and packing in and on as much attention and admiration as possible, as if these invisible little goblets of confirmation were good building material for a healthy sense of self (which they are not).
That’s why I learned to recite (I kid you not) the entire twenty or so minutes of Alice’s Restaurant although I only knew (roughly) one word in two of what I was saying.
But this is the sixties, and this is Stockholm, Sweden, a city replete with American Vietnam war draft dodgers, many of whom have rich parents that send them Rolexes and Gibson Banjos and lots of money to pay for their nightly visits to places like Sturehof. And there I’d be, holding forth, Alice’s Restaurant from beginning to end, laughing when others were; for although I had just voiced the funny line—I heard it leave my lips—I wasn’t quite sure what the joke was. I mean, who in Sweden at that time had ever come across Thanksgiving anyway? I for sure had not. And what was a bell tower anyway? And then they’d pay for another round and ask me to do it again for those who had just arrived.
Attention and admiration (and beer) indeed. Bolstering.
I liked it though. It was a good life. I had my own apartment, I had a great job, many good friends, a great guitar (which I played reasonably well), a good stereo, a fair album (LP - vinyl) collection, along with a healthy thirst for answers (to the mysteries of life).
And this young me “knows” that he will never die. Death is not even on the vaguest or most distant of horizons. He's got all the time in the world. Lived accordingly, and joyfully.
And I look at this image, smoking and beering, and I wonder where, in there, am I? How asleep was I? For I had not woken up yet, still only playing at searching (it was then known as “being deep” which girls found interesting), not truly searching—though that was to change within a year.
No, not truly searching. Not really reading the great philosophers but only carrying their books around and learning enough about them to drop their names and main lines (in order to gather attention and admiration). Futile, but fun, and in mundane ways rather rewarding.
And writing this, over forty years later, I ask myself, what—if anything—would I change, if I were to do it all over again, and the answer (both surprising and not) arrives quickly and unequivocally: Not a thing.
That said, who am I really, really? Read on to find out.
So, who am I? Really really.
I could tell you that I was born in northern Sweden during a snow storm, and subsequently raised by trolls, but that wouldn’t tell you much, only that I’m slightly off-kilter and problem froze now and then as a child.
I could give you a full account of how I was born Ulf Lennart Rönnquist, and how I stayed Ulf until I joined the boy scouts where I would always be known as Jonas (someone, really early on, asked me what my name was, and I said “Jonas” just to be funny, and it stuck).
I could also elaborate on how in the mid-and-late sixties, when I grew my hair long, I mostly went by the Swedish female name Ulla. Don’t know how that started, but that stuck, too. For years. Some in my hometown probably still remember me as Ulla.
Or I could detail for you how for a few hilarious days in 1969 I went by a French mutilation of my name; this French acquaintance tried to wrap his Gallic tongue around Ulf Rönnquist but could only manage “Ulfa Drawbridge,” so Ulfa Drawbridge I was. At least for a while.
Or I could recount how when I started writing in English, for a few years I used the pen name Rowan Wolf. Why? Well, Rönnquist means “branch of rowan tree” and Ulf means wolf, so why not? My Swedish name in English, reversed, as it were.
I could also give you a full rundown of how in 2002, during my immigration interview, I was asked what name I’d like on my passport (they do that, you know, you can say almost anything, and that becomes your legal US name), and how I more or less heard myself answer: "Ulf Wolf," (my pen name at the time) which in essence is Wolf Wolf. Wolf squared. Ulf meaning Wolf in old Swedish. Also, ULFWOLF fit so nicely on a California license plate (don't you think); and how legally, from then on, here in the US, I have been, and still am Ulf Wolf.
Yes, I could do all that. But instead, I think that I should tell you how I woke up. That would cast a much better light upon who I actually am. Really, really.
The year is 1968.
My fiancé is off in England not being very faithful (was my guess—which turned out to be the case), and I am hitchhiking from one Swedish town to the next trying to find a job, as in trying to find a firm that uses the type of computer equipment I by now am pretty expert at (as an operator), and that also has an opening. A bit daunting as a task.
The thing was that I had recently given my notice at to the firm I had worked at for the last few years because I was off to France to be a poet (I had the notion that I had been Baudelaire in a previous life, so I was in effect going home—or so ran my reasoning, or what masqueraded as reasoning).
The problem with the plan to return to my Baudelaire roots, however, apart from me not speaking much French, if any, was that this was the summer that the Paris students picked to revolt, and the bus company which was to take me there cancelled the trip, and refunded me my ticket. No way of going to France under these unstable conditions. Not recommended at all.
So, here I am, stranded in Sweden without a job (my firm—all too happy to see the back of me, since they had no use for poets, apparently—would not take me back) and without a place to live.
So I headed for Gothenburg (second largest city in Sweden). Gray day. Not warm. Dreary town. No jobs.
I figured Malmo (third largest city) next, and hitched a ride with a trucker going in that direction.
"You don’t want to go to Malmo," he told me enroute. Helsingborg (not sure where it ranks, but lies thirty odd miles north of Malmo) is a much nicer town, he told me. I took him at his word, and decided to try my luck there.
No jobs though. But the guy at the employment agency and I got along really well. Recently divorced he needed someone to talk to, so he treated me to a nice lunch and that then offered me to stay at his place (a small house by the beach about five miles north of Helsingborg) for the night, perhaps longer. Say, until I found a job. I gladly accepted. He was a great and kind man.
And, as a matter of fact, two days later he did find me a job. Not a computer job, but as a nurse at the then Santa Maria Hospital, which was a psychiatric hospital catering for the less fortunate, mentally. Would I want it?
Beggars can’t be choosers and all that. I gladly accepted.
Not only did the hospital provide a decent salary, but also room and board as part of the deal.
So began my summer at Santa Maria.
Now, an important part of this story is that by now I have begun a quest. For real this time. And no petty one either: the grand one, the one for truth.
And as it turned out, that hospital—of all places—was the perfect place for such a search, as the story will tell.
I cannot pinpoint when I, purely intuitively, conceived, or decided, that the capital-T Truth, the one we’re all looking for, and have been since time immemorial, is that thing that is proven by everything. Every thing.
Truth, to be ultimate, to be the one and only superior, capital-T Truth, must prove everything, and must be proven by everything; or it would not be ultimate. Stood to reason, I figured. So, that decided, I set out to gather evidence.
What proved the Truth? Who was to decide? Well, I was. By what criteria? By my own intuitive sense of what the Truth is. Hold up in court? Doubt it. Right for me? Absolutely.
It is a strange fact—and I believe it is a fact—that the spirit can tell the fake from the real. The spirit knows. As in you know when someone is lying to you. As in you know what is right and what is wrong. In your heart of hearts you know. That’s the thing. You know.
And I felt that I would know truth when I saw it. So, as I said, I set out to gather evidence.
A smile – Truth.
A flower – Truth.
The sunshine – Truth.
A tender kiss – Truth.
Greed – Not Truth.
A pen that works really well – Truth.
That particular cloud – Truth.
Jealousy - Not Truth.
Happiness - Truth.
No, I didn’t write these things down; rather, I placed them inside an imaginary frame, upon an imaginary canvas, and I knew that when I had collected all the evidence I needed to collect, the picture so framed would then come alive. And alive, it would be the Truth. This was another intuitive know, but there you have it. So, I continued my gathering of evidence.
An amazing incident provided a huge piece to his puzzle, provided a large Truth.
His name was Kaiser, or that is what he was called. He was a patient at Santa Maria, and had been there ever since the end of the Second World War, when he had been transferred from one of the German concentration camps to this Swedish hospital.
Kaiser had not spoken a word since his arrival—hence he was deemed seriously mentally ill.
In fact, or so I was told, Kaiser had not even smiled since his arrival—more grist for the mentally ill mill.
All day, he would shuffle around the ward (never lifting his feet to walk), head bowed down, face set in a permanent frown (not unlike President Nixon's, come to think of it). Every now and then he would cast a furtive glance in your direction, or at someone else, then he'd shuffle on his endless way.
He was considered un-reachable as a human being. Beyond help, really. And the only treatment he received was two large daily doses of those drugs that mental hospitals give patients to make them more tractable, and which makes keeping things clean so much easier.
One day I decided to bring my guitar to the ward and sing for them. The head nurse saw nothing wrong with that, and agreed. Might even do them some good.
So I sat down and began to play. Soon most of the room had gathered around me, curious, scared, confused some, and some intent on touching me and my guitar as if to make sure that this was really happening.
This is when Kaiser stopped shuffling around, and instead almost stormed in among the gathered throng and physically pulled away from me those that tried to touch me. Done with making sure I was not interfered with, he planted himself right in front of me, standing straight, and with the biggest grin on his face, shining really.
I could not believe my eyes (nor could, as it turned out, any of the other nurses). The moment was magical, and I just kept playing. Kaiser kept smiling. Then it was time for their meal and their meds.
Sitting up in bed that night, writing in my journal, I noted this amazing Truth (referring to Kaiser): The Spirit is that thing which cannot be killed.
Kaiser’s spirit, however deeply it had been buried, rose to the surface that day, and erupted in a smile. I knew this was a truth, an incredibly valuable truth.
The next day the head nurse called me into her office. Quite something with Kaiser, wasn’t it? she said. I agreed. Do you know what he was before the war? she asked. I didn’t know.
A concert pianist, she said.
The impact of that almost made me cry. Kaiser was a musician who had heard live music for the first time in twenty-five years, and that live music had brought him awake. The unkillable spirit.
Into the frame of Truth he went, smiling and all.
A few days later I had a vision. I saw life, the world, the universe, as a painting, set in a vast and beautiful frame. And everyone and everything in that painting looked up and said “good,” looked down and said “bad.” They looked up and said, “God,” looked down and said, “The Devil.” They looked up and said, “heaven,” looked down and said, “hell.” Looked up and said, “beautiful,” looked down and said, “ugly.” Looked up and said, "strong," looked down and said "weak." And so on through all these dichotomies we surround ourselves with.
Yet, all I could see, standing on the outside and not being part of the painted (un-painted, as it were), was a painting, neither good nor bad, neither ugly nor beautiful; it was just a painting. An illusion.
I also saw that I would have to consider myself “painted” in order to buy into and experience those dichotomies.
A good patient-friend of mine was six foot tall and all muscle, but with a mental age of perhaps six. He had gotten it into his head that I was a prince from India. Why? I wondered. Because I was not afraid of the elephants, he explained. Right.
I liked this man so much that I wanted to give him my gold puzzle ring, you know those that consist of six or eight interlocking rings of gold that you must put together just so, or they will remain six or eight separate strands.
Having decided to give this to him, I realized that I would have to teach him how to put it together, for were I to give it to him, and were he to drop it and then not be able to put it together again, well, I was afraid that this would break his heart.
So, I told him I was giving him this ring, let's just sit down and I'll show you how it works. And so, we sat down, and took it apart and put it together again many times. And then he tried many times, and failed many times.
I showed him many more times. He tried and failed many more times. I showed him again. He tried again. Failed again.
After perhaps an hour he looks right at me and says, “Keep the ring. I can never learn how to put it together. And if I drop it, and it breaks, it would break my heart.”
One night I read an essay by Bertrand Russell where he proved to me that God couldn’t possibly exist, at least not as bandied about. I saw it, and was immensely relieved to learn this.
I read other essays by other philosophers and realized that all philosophers are “we” with each other. All are seeking the same truth. All are of the same mental race.
I saw many other mental races, more clearly than the physical ones.
One night I realized with full clarity that Home is where you are. And that you cannot possibly be other that Home, no matter where you go.
In some ways I felt like a growing river.
Then I wondered: What is it, really, that makes me think?
Again, intuitively (and I lived on this plane almost all the time now—it is now September of 1968), I saw that the first thing that made me think was my body.
If thirsty I think of water, if hungry I think of food. If tired I think of sleep, if horny I think of sex. If hurting I think of lessening the pain. If cold I think of warmth, and vice versa. The body, and all its intricacies, yes, it certainly made me think.
All right, I reasoned, what if I did not have a body. What, then, would make me think? And, I also asked myself, absolute purity, wherein does it hide?
Were I not to have a body, were I not to be influenced at all by its many needs and desires, I saw that all I have learned from others, from the world, would make me think. My father’s little lessons, my mother’s, my teachers’ many instructions, and the many societal and environmental lessons I had learned from the moment I could perceive, yes, they made me think. They gave me values, they gave me solutions, they gave me entire philosophical systems to think with. Yes, indeed.
But what if I didn’t have that? What if I had never been taught, indoctrinated, or influenced, then what would make me think?
I tasted this question with my entire being before the answer rose as a big sun within me. Then, it said, then I would make me think.
And this would be the sphere or space of Free Thought, of certainty, of harmony. This I experienced. And then I wrote in my journal: “I experienced the proof that experience is a proof.”
Then I also concluded, that the truest state of existence, then, would be that after death: no body, no environment to indoctrinate. Just You. And it never for a second occurred to me that I might cease to exist at body death. No chance.
This would also be the absolute purity I sought.
Then I wrote in my journal:
I have found the connection, all that now remains is to prove it to humanity.
The connection is cognizance of the space of Free Thought, the cognizance of this space’s unimaginable width.
It is this universal well, this core of truth that forms the pure thought.
You can call the core the Soul, or the Good, or God, etc.
Do I really see any limitations within me?
Are the any limits for Humanity?
The absolute fulfillment is when everything, and I mean everything, is a proof for the core, the soul.
No, the thought is larger than than, more nuanced.
I find truth in Plato, in Baudelaire, in an feeling, in an answer, in a smile, in all being.
Everything is directed towards the same core, everything a proof for the pure.
And it is when everything gives me impressions, when everything is absorbed to clarity, when everything proves the same thing, that truth has reached fulfillment.
Yes, I am convinced.
The following morning (I don’t think I slept much during the night) I went to see a friend of mine to share with him what I had discovered. I remember a light rain, though the morning was warm for September.
As it happened, my friend was not in, but his girlfriend was, and I just had to tell someone about this.
So I sat her down, Listen, I said. Listen to this.
And I asked her for pen an paper. She found them. I drew three concentric circles.
There are three concentric fields of thought, I said. One, your body (pointing to the innermost circle)—dictating thoughts of food when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, water when you’re thirsty, sex when you’re aroused. Two (pointing to circular field between the first and second circle), education and upbringing—dictating thought based on others’ opinion, lessons learned, parental influences, experience, and so on. Three (indicating the circular field between the second and third circles), outside these first two fields lies the field of Free Thought, where I, You, are free to do the thinking yourself. You make you think.
And here is how I awoke. As I outlined these fields to my friend's girlfriend, it was as if I actually expanded outward beyond body, beyond indoctrination—as if I left them both behind and fully entered the field of Free Thought.
And while in the field of Free Thought the question simply arrived: Is there a field outside the field of Free Thought?
In my next breath, the answer arrived, and it said, quite clearly: That would be "Nirvana."
And as the word—it was like a whisper, as if an angel had stooped down to let me in on a secret—arrived, I felt a ripple in my feet, which grew to fountain up my legs and shot through my chest and head and into light: all was light. Intense, joyful, amazing, vibrant, light.
I was no longer, I was light, experiencing itself.
I don’t know for sure how long this lasted, a minute perhaps, maybe five, maybe longer. After that the room softly returned and with it my friend's girlfriend, who looked a little concerned perhaps. I looked up at her and all I said then was: “Now I know.”
I left then, and walked back to my own room. On the way I ate an orange. And as I ate it I could feel each swallow slide down my throat and enter my stomach. I could I perceived everything about and inside my body.
For days after that I hardly thought a single thought. My head was like a quiet forest lake, no ripples. I knew.
I had woken up: I was awake.
And that’s who I am. Really, really.