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Out of sync with the world’s ambitions

July 12, 2012

“The Hippy Hippy Shake” came to mind after I finished Lauren Groff’s novel, Arcadia, set in a hippie commune during the 1960s and 1970s. The song has nothing to do with the countercultural youth of those decades — it’s all about “shake it to the left, shake it to the right” — but the melody defiantly looped through my head. No reference in the lyrics to the Age of Aquarius long-hairs espousing peace and love. No anti-government cries or LSD hallucinations, either. Clearly, it was the word “hippie” now lodged in my head, after reading this memorable novel, that generated the wrongly associated mental soundtrack. It also cut loose many memories from growing up during the decade that hosted the Summer of Love and Woodstock.

Lauren Groff sheds an intimate and meaningful light on the hippie culture — less of a label, you could say — with her seven dozen hippies living on a large area of land they call Arcadia in upstate New York. Here, in her fictional commune, they live in trucks, buses and lean-tos and collectively manage the community’s sanitation, baking, canning, gardening and other living requirements. In the beginning of the story, the commune’s charismatic guru, Handy, leaves the community on a music tour to spread the word of Arcadia. While he’s gone, the remaining Free People rehab a deteriorated mansion on their land, a long-delayed project that will bring them all together under one roof.

Groff is an extraordinary fiction writer, rendering life’s most ordinary detail into beautiful images with lyric, colorful phrasing. She sees magic and miracles in those details, such as “the faces of sleeping babies that live in Hannah’s knees.” That is what Bit sees, Hannah and Abe’s son, “the littlest bit of a hippie ever made,” and the protagonist of this dreamy novel that infatuated me. We experience Arcadian life through his trusting eyes, and these early years, when he’s six years old, wrap him in happiness and enchant him with discovery. He is not without worry, however, for the harsh realities of poverty and hunger drive Bit’s mother into a deep depression that frightens him.

After the mansion is completed, Groff leaps ahead to when Bit is 14 years old. Now, Arcadia swells with hundreds of cynical newbies “diluting the pure beliefs of the Old Arcadians.” This gross invasion and Handy’s self-interest become the ruin of the commune. Old and new hippies leave in droves. Groff leaps again. Bit, a middle-aged professor of photography, lives in New York City, but his soul remains rooted in Arcadia. Although dispersed, the founding hippies stay connected, drifting in an out of each others’ lives as Groff takes us into the world of 2018, burdened with a viral epidemic and devastating consequences of global warming.

She does this so successfully – all this leaping – pulling us into and through Bit’s life so we understand the depth and grace of his beginning years determining his adult years, when Bit’s ambitions are not in sync with his purposeful surroundings. Instead, Bit is content with the happiness that comes from being satisfied with life’s basic needs, “a life of enough food and shelter and money.” He’s an authentic, believable result of Arcadia’s good heart and Handy’s idealistic vision. Someone we come to care about. A person who sees beauty despite the world’s tragedies.

When Abe dies, Bit returns to his childhood home for his father’s funeral, bringing his teenage daughter with him. The two remain in Arcadia to take care of Hannah, who reveals she’s been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. An Amish woman, Glory, is among Hannah’s many visitors.

Groff describes the Amish as the Oldest Utopians. The juxtaposition is significant – the Amish have lived successful community life for hundreds of years, and Glory speaks wisely about freedom, community and the reasons Arcadia failed. Her insight brings the hippie utopian vision down to earth, removing the rose-colored glasses — and yet, because of Bit, what he tells us about peace and “the hushed spaces in life” in the book’s last two paragraphs, we know Arcadia mattered and made a difference. “Pay attention, he thinks. Not to the grand gesture, but to the passing breath.”

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