Do you ever get a “stuck” feeling when you’re trying to think? How can we ever know if we’re thinking widely enough, if we’re failing to realize something obvious, something so large that it can’t fit inside our frame of reference?
The angry, confusing debates — politics, society, religion — that often roil us today are rooted in varying frames of reference. We can’t understand opposing points of view because we can’t see past certain premises and presumptions. Emmett Grogan, the late hippie activist and social critic who founded the Diggers in San Francisco in the 1960s, worked obsessively to broaden his own thinking, and encouraged others to do the same. The Diggers opened a storefront where they gave away food — and, in a delightfully postmodern touch, asked people to walk through a physical manifestation of a “frame of reference” in order to get it.
The idea seemed to be that, by either accepting or giving away free food, a person might change their frame of reference. And what if a store didn’t ask people to pay for food, but instead asked them to think for it? Here’s the Emmett Grogan story as told by his creative partner and fellow Digger Peter Coyote in Coyote’s memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle. (This text is also available for free at the Digger Archives).
The San Francisco Diggers were initially assembled around the visionary acuity of Billy Murcott, a mysterious childhood friend of Emmett’s who believed that people had internalized material values and cultural premises about the sanctity of private property and capital so completely as to have become addicted to wealth and status. It was an enchantment so deep, an identity with jobs so absolute as to have eradicated all contact with inner wildness and personal expression not condoned by society.
Free, as the Diggers understood it, in its broadest context, was the antidote to such addictions. For most people the word free means simply, “without limits”. Harnessed to the notion of enterprise, however, it has become the dominant engine of the culture. The perception that the vanquishing of limits was not only possible, but a necessary and valuable adjunct to successful living was so integral to American life as to remain unquestioned. In fact, personal freedom, as it was colloquially understood, had lots of limits: it limited aspirations (to adult adjustment, for instance), created continual cultural upheavals, ignored interdependence, violated the integrity of the family and community, exhausted biological niches and strip-mined common courtesy and civility from public life.
… I remember clearly the first day I went to the Panhandle with Emmett to see the Free Food. Hearty, steaming stew was being ladled out of large steel milk cans. Each portion was accompanied by loaves of bread that resembled mushrooms because they had been baked in one pound coffee cans, and as they rose over the edge of the tin, they spread into a cap-like shape. The morning stung your cheeks with damp fog, sharp with the smell of eucalyptus. Emmett and I stood just off to the side watching the line that led the people waiting with their ubiquitous tin cups, through a large square which had been constructed out of six foot long two by fours painted bright yellow. This was The Free Frame of Reference. In order to receive a meal, people stepped through it, and once on the other side, they were issued a tiny yellow replica about two inches square, attached to a cord for wearing. They were encouraged to bring this up to their eyes like a monocle and view any piece of reality through ‘a free frame of reference’. It was a simple piece of mental technology which allowed people to reconstruct (or deconstruct) their world-view at their own pace and direction.
(The photo above shows a recent outdoor art exhibit in Woodstock, New York, and my daughter Abby.)