Secret life of Taos hippies

Couple's memoir shares diary entries from the seventies

Posted 6/12/19

Those were the days: Life and Love in 1970s' New Mexico by Phaedra Greenwood and Jim Levy

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Secret life of Taos hippies

Couple's memoir shares diary entries from the seventies



Life and Love in 1970s' New Mexico

by Phaedra Greenwood and Jim Levy

337 pp. Atalaya Press. $12.75

The late 1960s and early '70s were a revolutionary time in American culture. Young people, rebelling against the rigid social norms of the generation before and the war raging on the other side of the world, chose to pursue a new radical way of life. Many of those subversives, known as hippies, moved to Taos County where hippie communes converged. While there are many books that document that fascinating era, none do so as intimately as the newest memoir by long-time couple Jim Levy and Phaedra Greenwood, "Those Were the Days: Life and Love in the 1970s' New Mexico."

Greenwood won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for short fiction in 1985 and in 2008 she was a finalist for the New Mexico Book Award for her nature memoir, "Beside the Río Hondo." She is the author of "North with the Spring: An American Family Travels in Europe," and also editor of and contributor to "Drinking from the Stream: Women's Prose and Poetry About Nature." Jim Levy worked for many years as an administrator for nonprofit organizations and he is the author of 10 books of poetry, memoir, essay, fiction and travel.

Both writers recorded their experiences through letters and journal entries and - amazingly -saved them all, which they compiled into this book. Through a great feat of beautifully crafted structuring, the ephemera is placed end to end in a cooperative collage. The effect is a compliment of parallel lives, at times intersecting and at times at odds.

At the start of the book, Greenwood is a drifter, trice-divorced, and living in a shed the size of a cell with one window and little more than a mattress on the floor. That winter, the temperature drops to 40 below. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine that Taos ever got that cold. Greenwood soon learns she is pregnant with her ex-boyfriend's child and although she is single, underemployed and living in a tool shed, she decides to have the baby on her own.

Levy is married with stepchildren, but he is unfaithful to his wife, Deidre. Deidre, we learn will later become the best-selling author and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. With this in mind, it is interesting to observe her character - a key role in the book - before she became a spiritual teacher. Her character, pained and jealous over the love affair between Levy and Greenwood and her pending divorce, is often portrayed as highly emotional and irrational.

Greenwood, who at the time is good friends with Deidre, writes, "I'm miffed at Deidre for being so unaware of my needs. Weary of playing guru with her. Being the strong one. I'm human, too." One can't help but chuckle at the irony of that journal entry from over 40 years ago.

The memoir is filled with moments of drama even as the authors recall the mundane details of their lives. One of the more compelling chapters is when Levy, escaping the emotional weight of his marital separation from Deidre, leaves on a ship for Africa and contracts malaria. Simultaneously, back at home in Taos, Greenwood is in the throes of labor with her son, Alexander.

Greenwood writes of childbirth in her characteristic poetic prose, "When the next contraction passed, I dove deep and fast down into the pond, the light fading above me … For fifteen or twenty seconds. Down there, time is not. I touched darkness. When I floated back up again, it was with a joyous certainty."

In the next journal entry, Levy writes of his illness. "The way a train enters a tunnel, I enter my body. My head is being pressed inward. My chest is being pressed by vices. My jaw is quivering, and my teeth are clicking."

In a world before the instant connection of cellphones and internet, neither one knows at the time what the other is going through. Weeks later, Greenwood writes, "I got your letter from Ghana. Thank heaven you survived malaria."

A vein of uncertainty runs through the narrative as Greenwood and Levy scribble in their journals and wonder if their relationship will survive. The bond between them is obviously strong, but love is never a sure thing. Greenwood writes of Levy, "I wanted to be his family, but at the same time, I wanted to retreat into my stubborn independence, to my determination to go it alone, now and always, just me, and now me and Alexander. Without the risks. Without the heartbreaks." Even as the reader knows the inevitable result of all their future concerns, we can't help but root for them.

Throughout the story of their budding love, we live the experience of Taos in the '70s -- dropping acid, loving freely, living on the land without basic comforts, like plumbing. "Neither of us minded the outhouse, which we used around noon in the winter when it was warmer and in the morning in the summer when it was cooler," Greenwood writes.

Whether you were there at the time and want to relive some of the experiences and see if you made it into the book, or if you wish you had been there, the highly personal account of a very specific time and place draws the reader in. Like a secret treasure, this memoir gives the thrilling sensation of reading a diary found buried inside an old trunk in a thrift store.

The authors are planning a book signing and reading from "Those Were the Days" on July 27, 4-5:30 p.m., at Brodsky Bookshop, 226 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Admission is free and everyone is invited. For more, call the venue at (575) 758-9468.


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