Sometimes life offers us the healing we long for in the most surprising and unexpected ways. That’s what has happened to me over the past few years. In ways that I would have never guessed possible, some of the more troubled parts of my life have been transformed, especially a certain quarter of my being that I thought would never see the light of love in this lifetime.
As far as I can tell, the process began in the autumn of 2005, when Rudy Shur, the publisher of Square One Publishers, called me and asked if I would write a book based on the unpublished memoir of Elliot Tiber, the man who brought the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival to White Lake, New York. In spring of 1969, the organizers of the Woodstock concert had been kicked out of Wallkill, New York, the event’s original site. Suddenly, the concert was homeless and unlikely to go on – that is, until Elliot, who was the president of the Chamber of Commerce in nearby White Lake, gave the concert a home.
Elliot’s memoir was written in a “stream of consciousness” form, which meant that there was no real structure to the book, no beginning, middle or end. It was a stream of emotion, much of it negative, for having to endure various forms of persecution for being a homosexual and a Jew in a community that had rejected both.
Elliot had spent his entire conscious life seeing himself in very critical terms. “I always saw myself as fat and ugly,” he recalled, “even when photographs proved otherwise.”
The picture we have of ourselves often obscures so much that is beautiful, good, and heroic, and that certainly was the case for Elliot. Not only had he been pivotal in making perhaps the greatest musical event in human history possible, but he also was present at the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, on the night of June 29, 1969, when gay men and women rioted against yet another unjust police raid upon a gay-owned business. On that night, the gay civil rights movement was born and Elliot was there for its birth.
Woodstock was much more than a concert, as most everyone who’s ever heard of the event knows by now. They called it “three days of music and peace,” and indeed it was. Prior to the event, the nay-sayers predicted all kinds of crime and violence – destruction of property, theft, riots, rape, and even murder. None of that happened. People shared their food, alcohol, drugs, and most of all their love with each other.
The official count for the number of people who attended was 500,000, with a million more stranded along the 90-mile-stretch of the New York State Thruway, between White Lake and New York City. More likely, there were a million at the concert, with another million or so on the highway.
Woodstock was not as much an event that changed the world, but one that reflected what was taking place in the world at that moment in history. People sought to discover who they were, as opposed to conforming to a particular religion or ideology that might tell them who they were. That turning inward, of course, is based on some intuitive knowing that our greatest value and inherent goodness lies within each of us. It was the struggle and purpose of the times to discover that goodness, that deeper truth within oneself.
Elliot and I collaborated on the new version of his book. I interviewed him in person and asked questions via e-mail. I then wrote the chapters and sent them off, one by one, to Elliot and Rudy Shur, who supervised the writing process. This work yielded a whole new set of themes and included other aspects of Elliot’s life, which now found their places in the chapters of the book.
The work was a great joy. Each book has its own voice. For eight months of writing, the voice of Taking Woodstock rock-and-rolled inside my head. I didn’t so much write the book as take dictation. And much of the time, it was hilarious. I would sit in my office and laugh out loud as I wrote, much to the amusement of my wife, Toby.
“What’s so funny in there?” she would sometimes call out from the kitchen or living room. “You’ll see,” I’d yell back at her through my closed office door. Whenever the chapters were finished, Toby would be the first to read them. Pretty soon, I’d hear her laughing too.
As the book took shape, Rudy began talking about the possibility that it could be made into a movie. “I can see it. This could be a movie,” Rudy kept saying.
Rudy had a contact in Hollywood who promised to read the book and shop it around to producers once it was finished. But before that could happen, something unexpected took place that none of us could have predicted.
The book was scheduled for publication in the early summer of 2007, but the process took longer than expected and the book finally came out on August 28 of that year.
August 28 was my mother’s birthday, and at the time she was dying of lung cancer.
How do you capture a lifetime of turmoil and conflict in a single, safe little paragraph? The answer is, you don’t. My mother lived a very troubled, disappointed, angry, and sad life. It wasn’t until she was well into her 60s that she learned to engage in actions whose intention was to bring her some small happiness. When I was a child, she was overcome by her raging demons and only rarely could she find her motherhood. She resented and competed with me from the start, unable to express much love, or receive it. Later on, after I rescued her in the aftermath of an attempted suicide, she acknowledged her ongoing efforts to beat down her three children. Unfortunately, by that time, stating the obvious was not enough to heal the wounds.
By the time Taking Woodstock was published, my mother was well along in the dying process. The cancer had spread to her bones and liver and she could hardly endure the pain, despite the ample drugs being given to her.
She was living in Santa Barbara, California. She moved there to be with me and my family twenty years before and remained in Santa Barbara after Toby, my children and I moved back to the East coast.
When she was ill, I went out to Santa Barbara to be with her. While there, I gave her a copy of the book. Throughout her life, she had been an avid reader and had a brilliant mind. I thought the book would cheer her up, but I doubt that she read it. Her cancer was so advanced that it very likely prevented her from concentrating on anything but her pain and her forthcoming death.
Still, I took it as a small sign from the Source that the book was published on her birthday and told her as much. I had no idea what the sign might mean, except as a coincidence that struck a personal chord inside of me.
Once the book came out, Elliot began promoting it on radio and television talk shows. Early that fall, he appeared on a television show in San Francisco. As he waited in the green room to go on, he met a fellow guest who would also appear on the show — famed director, Ang Lee.
The two got on well and talked about Elliot’s book. In a moment that must have been orchestrated in heaven, Elliot gave Ang Lee a copy of the book.
A few weeks later, my mother died. My mother left very few possessions and at her wake my brother gave me her only possession that would fall to me, her copy of Taking Woodstock. “She wanted you to have this,” he said to me.
The moment he handed me the book seemed to be filled with a certain portent that I couldn’t grasp or make any sense of. I let it pass without further reflection.
A week later, Ang Lee announced that he was purchasing the rights to Taking Woodstock. It was going to be his next feature film.
It may have been Toby who said it first, but both of us were thinking the same thing when we heard the news. ”This is your mother’s doing,” Toby said. I nodded in agreement. In some deep place in my heart, I knew it was true.
I had seen the phenomenon before many times in the lives of others, and had experienced it profoundly once before in my own life. I have noticed on many other occasions that when a loved one dies, those who were particularly close to the deceased person often receive some life-altering blessing – someone becomes pregnant, or receives good news about a job, for example. The blessing can be a spiritual event or healing, as well. Whatever it may be, it is common for something momentous to happen after a loved one passes. Inevitably, the gift makes us wonder, and even feel that strings were being pulled on our behalf from the other side.
The following year, 2008, was marked by ongoing news from Hollywood about Ang Lee’s progress on the film. First, a script had to be written. That was done by Ang Lee’s partner, James Schamus, the CEO of Focus Features. Next, Ang and company had to assemble a cast and deal with the looming threat of an actor’s strike, which hung over production all that year. Somehow he put together a brilliant cast of actors and put legal protections in place that would allow him to go forward with the film in the event of a work stoppage.
He began shooting the movie late that summer and finished in the fall. Once filming was complete, he began the long process of editing and weaving the musical score into the images.
To be honest, all of this was a side show in my life. My work preoccupied me much of the time. News of Taking Woodstock was the background entertainment, which I must admit I did not give enough attention to. Thankfully, Toby kept me informed. She loves all things Hollywood and was only too happy to share with me every tidbit of news that came out of the film’s production.
Occasionally, Toby would say to me, “Oh your mother would love this. If only she could be here to see this, she would be so happy and proud.”
Whenever we would have these conversations, small events would occur in the room in which we were sitting. A door closed. A plate took a new position in the sink and made a sound. A light would flicker. Once, while we were driving along a highway, Toby and I were engaged in a conversation about the movie and I said, “I feel like my mother has a hand in all of this.” No sooner did I get the words out of my mouth than the car’s windshield was splattered with water. I looked up and saw that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The road itself was bone dry. Driving at 70 miles an hour, I could not find a single source for the water. We could feel her presence.
Meanwhile, an odd process was underway inside of me, one that for a time I resisted fiercely. I had a series of dreams about my mother who, in every one was loving and kind to me. She was also immensely happy. In one of my dreams, I saw her driving a convertible sports car. She was young and beautiful and content. She wore a decorative scarf that blew in the wind. In the dream, I wanted to go to her, but I was standing on a bridge above the road upon which she drove and couldn’t jump down to be with her.
When I awoke, I remembered Carl Jung’s warning that we could not truly be with our loved ones on the other side until it was time for us to pass. Until then, our visits would only be fleeting and from a distance.
As these dreams occurred, images seemed to impress themselves on my second attention – that is to say, they occurred during moments when I was focusing on something else, or merely day dreaming. Upon reflection, I realized that my mind had been interacting with her, even without my being fully conscious of the event. In these moments, I could feel her presence smiling down on me, bathing me in love.
Prior to my mother’s death, I had spent years writing about my anger, rage, sadness, and even hatred of her, trying to expel it from my system. I had confronted her dozens of times. I had done healing programs and therapies of all sorts in an effort to channel love to those parts of me that were forced to walk this life in the absence of a mother’s love. Yes, it all helped. I felt better about me, but I didn’t feel any better about her.
All of that was changing now. The anger I had long felt was being replaced by the love that I had buried many years ago and never expected to see resurrected again. But that is what happened. The woman who was part of my past, and created so much havoc, no longer lives inside of me. She has been replaced by the woman who now lives in my heart.
I realize that this all sounds sort of cooky and made up. Perhaps it is yet another desperate attempt to put a painful part of the past to rest. If it is, so be it. I am better off with the fantasy of love than the memory of pain. But something in my soul tells me that this new relationship is closer to the truth than anything I have known of the past. And so I accept this new reality as a great gift and blessing. My soul rests a little easier these days than ever before.
The film was originally scheduled to be released sometime in June, after its debut at the Cann Film Festival in Cann, France. But certain things happened and things were delayed.
Finally, the new release date was announced: August 28th, 2009. When I heard the news, I felt my mother winking.