A Prelude of Silence

IN my freshman year at Berkeley I lived in a coed dorm; I was part of the Residential Program, an experiment designed to get some freshmen living and studying together in a smaller unit.

We lived together in the same dorm, had two of our three classes together, spoke on a first-name basis with the scholars who taught our seminars, argued politics in the bathrooms, and partied into the night in the common room. We roamed together from Augustine to Marx to Mick Jagger, 50 of us in the first two years of college.

On the day I opened Augustine's "Confessions" for the first time, I also met Kitty. I was sitting on a table in my "uniform" (my roommate called it that) - jeans, a neatly pressed Brooks Brothers shirt, and Gucci loafers without socks. I dangled my feet waiting for something to happen.

Kitty walked in, and she walked in like the dancer she was. After four years in an all boy's school and a miserable junior-high transition out of childhood, I was the proverbial "late bloomer." But Kitty had bloomed, and I was more aware of her than of anything or anyone else. However, unlike Augustine, I didn't confess.

I didn't know how to begin with her. So I made friends with her roommate. This wasn't "forced;" I liked her too. But I knew where I was drawn.

Over time, Kitty and I did many things together. But in the style of that time and place, we were never alone, always in a group going out for burgers or going to class, or dancing to the Stones. (Did I dance with her? Yes, once, but only as a part of the larger flowing group in "the Program.")

In the larger group I was protected, yet still pretty close to her. It was OK; I was beginning to bloom, slowly.

Mid-year, Merce Cunningham and his dance troupe came to town for a concert at the university auditorium. My Spanish teacher from high school was dancing with them that year, and I wanted to see him dance. I had also bloomed enough to ask Kitty to "come along with me if she'd like to."

She did. We went. I was amazed. I was amazed that I had gotten Kitty to go alone with me on what was (known to me alone) my first date, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. But I was also amazed at what I saw and heard.

I saw Cunningham and company, including my teacher. They "walked" toward, away from, and around a large moving pillar which perpetually redefined the space and the effect of what the dancers were doing. That was what was going on in the "space" on stage.

But what was going on in "time" was the music. John Cage was there making music, his haunting minimalistic sounds that riveted me to my seat and made that place, the whole huge auditorium, like the inside of a drum being beaten down toward the level of ritual and mystery.

I will never forget the image of Cage up in front "conducting" these sounds. Some people laughed or squirmed. I didn't. Neither did Kitty. When it ended, some of the people exploded into applause and cheers. But before that happened, for a few unforgettable seconds, there was complete silence. Complete. That was the best part of the concert. I learned later that that is where Cage always wanted to take his listeners with his music, to silence and into a deeper attention to what just is.

Kitty and I never "got it together." Later that year she went off to New Orleans for her debut at one of the Mardi Gras balls. As she described how they do things there, with masks and all of the paraphernalia of the ball, I felt her becoming less a part of my world and more a part of a world that, though close to mine economically, was separated by invisible curtains of class and style. That wasn't fair to her. She was a wonderful person. I knew her well enough by then to know that. I was just too sensi tive to her background, which, at 18, seemed truly mythical to me. And I was still too self-conscious to confess how I felt about her.

But Kitty was my first date. And it was an astounding evening for me because of John Cage's art. Maybe, just maybe, if I had gotten closer to the silence he propounded instead of my loud fears I could have shared my feelings. Who can know his feelings without the prelude of silence?

John Cage, who died recently, had that right. Still blooming 20 years later, I am learning how right he was. Silence is a "must" if we are ever to tell the truth, and to find the courage to do it.

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