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Author: Lisa

Lisa Gruwell Spicer is a writer, producer, video editor, and traveler. She grew up in Seattle and California, returning to the Pacific NW to attend the University of Washington. Earning a BA in Communications/Broadcast Journalism lead her to work in the Seattle film & video production industry, including the KCTS/PBS documentary unit and the Bill Nye show. Lisa's work has created opportunities to work and live in cultures different than her own; this lead her to acquire an MA in Anthropology in 2013.

18 à Paris

An American hippie girl, coming of age in France

Lisa on her horse, Northern California. 1975

I was 16, starting out in a big city high school, from rural northern California to LA. I wanted to live my last two years of dependence with my dad, animator and artist Paul Gruwell. Moving from my mom’s back-to-the-land homestead in rural northern California, I made a brave leap to live with Dad in the big city, and finish high school in Los Angeles. My dreams of academic excellence, performing arts, sports, and camaraderie went splat. A few friends and I shared the low-rank of “new kid.” The girl cliques were closed. Aside from occasional rides home on a friend’s motorcycle, not one guy asked me out. I didn’t make the gymnastics team. My audition for the high school musical landed me yet again in the chorus. In my senior year, the class officers chose to name the class of 1978 “The Elites.” What does that mean? I looked it up. These are not my people.

45 record (single track) sleeve for a Cheech and Chong comedy bit. Drawn by Paul Gruwell

Dad worked all the time. When not at the animation studio, (in the 70s, that was Hannah Barbera) he was busy in his home studio–an animation desk at one end of the living room. Long horizontal sheets of background artwork taped to the wall served as the décor at the studio end of the room; his geometric-phase paintings on canvas were proudly displayed on the walls at the other end, around the couch and chairs. Dad had a clean, post-modern sense of style, expressed by Swedish furnishings, even if it was rented. In LA, people in the film industry are transient. If one can’t find another gig before the bills are due, it’s easy to get the rental company to come get their furnishings. This was Dad’s strategy. His income in the animation industry was seasonal: there was Saturday Morning Cartoon season, and then Freelance season–when we didn’t have a couch. Dad designed and drew album cover art for recording artists like Cheech and Chong, and animated the film for their song, Basketball Jones.

A morning note from Dad, 1977

Dad’s work fascinated me. I went everywhere I could go with him, given our schedules. Living in LA was more about time with Dad than a big city high school. He animated a song for folk-rock duo Seals and Croft (still one of my favorite ‘70’s bands), called Forever Like the Rose; this was before MTV, when short films screened in movie theaters before the feature. He often left us kitchen table notes, as we got up after he left for the day. One morning, Dad surprised my sister Gina and I with a note: “Make a picnic dinner and dress for an evening outside. I’ll be Home by 6, be ready to go.” I remember thinking, “Oh cool, dinner at the beach.” But getting on the Santa Monica Freeway, instead of turning west to the coast, we drove east toward Hollywood. Approaching the sign for the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor amphitheater, the marquee announced: Tonight – Seals and Croft. We had second-row center seats and it was a concert I enjoy to this day.

Paul H. Gruwell, 1978
French Huguenot cross from Languedoc region of France

I determined to do something amazing for the second half of my senior year. With 3 years of French language, adoration of French culture, and ancestry among French Huguenots (escaping religious persecution, my Gruwell ancestors immigrated to America in the late 1700s), I decided to go to France. Perusing the back pages of Sunset Magazine for international study-abroad programs, an ad for The Experiment in International Living seemed good. I applied and was accepted. My program was from January through May of 1978. I would be living with a family in southwest France and attending school. To fund my expedition, I wrote for and received a scholarship from the French Government. From my after-school job behind the bakery counter at The Boulangerie in Santa Monica, I saved every dime.

Like a rite of passage, Dad took an afternoon off work and maneuvered his VW microbus into downtown Los Angeles to help me get my passport. He decided to get his, too. I still have his passport photo from that day (see top of this post), because they give you two. Dad and I truly liked hanging out together. Once I tagged along on his visit to a Transcendental Meditation center in Westwood Village, and decided to learn this form of meditation. I trained and received a personal mantra, with instructions not to share it. Dad and I joked about what would happen if we revealed our mantras. Wouldn’t it be funny if our mantras were the same?

My journey to France was a life-affirming rite of passage. Now I am a mother with a daughter in high school who is on her way to master the French language. When we converse en francais, I feel proud we can speak more than English. Maybe we’re experiencing epigentics, the ancestral stirring. Spending her 17th summer in France, my daughter inspired me to return to my archives, where I unearthed the travel journal of my 17th year, and turning 18 in Paris.

January, 1978

1/28/78, my last night at home, Marina Del Rey, California

The journal and the journey begin
I feel a breeze blowing gently on me as I sit back, relax and look upon my past semester at school--my last. I went through hell; I learned. I am satisfied with all I have done and accomplished, and I have nothing to regret. I am happy. It feels so nice to think again. To write again. No more homework assignments, feeling like I always needed to study. I really believe I must always make the time to spend with myself and my thoughts. I am so important to me, and sometimes I just shouldn’t give a damn about anything or anybody. Because I’m doing all these things for myself, in the long run. Even in doing nice things and favors for others, I am fulfilling a personal need to help out when its needed. It gives me a sense of importance. But above all. There is me. Why do I worry and fret about grades and obligations? So what if they’re not met, or I don’t meet someone else’s expectations. It’s me. It’s all for me, the things I do. To enrich my life is my goal, and in doing that, I also help out others and put in my contribution for society and the good of us all as a whole. That is, I suppose, the reason I feel the need to live in a small, tight community. One that comes together and can recognize the needs as well as contributions.
My trip to France will teach me so much and enrich my life. I have already gained so much without yet departing. I’ve done it all myself. All dad did was sign things and write a few rubber checks. But, I’m so glad I’ve done it all, because all is done--my way. No one else has their foot in and no one else can tell me how to run things or what to do. I must do it all on my own from now on. No one else will. No one else should. No one else but me. Just me. Who is it for, anyway?
Thanks! I’m glad I’m going to France, on my own!

In January of 1978, I participated in an international studies program based out of Brattleboro, Vermont, The Experiment in International Living. The international educational program provided home-stay experiences for youth ages 17-24, from and to cultures around the world. Students attend a three-week culture and language intensive at The Experiment campus in Brattleboro. And then, we all fly off to our respective homestays—American students heading abroad, and foreign students to homestays in on of the states. I was flying out of LAX on January 29 to Brattleboro, Vermont, destination: headquarters for The Experiment in International Living, where it was the polar opposite climate from Southern California. Our group traveling to France was assembling for a three-week language and culture intensive. This included a luggage hike. We had to carry our luggage for a mile-long hike in the snow. What we couldn’t carry, we would be shipping home.

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Reverence for Cheyenne Elders

Rose Medicine Elk and her daughter, Chiefs society meeting, November 1992 (Photo: Lisa Gruwell)

Elders are seated first at community gatherings in Indian Country. It’s a graceful social interaction; when an elder enters a room or approaches a group of people who are seated, someone younger will offer up their seat. A quiet thank you, “Hey-eh-heh,” and nods are exchanged. Meals start with a prayer offered by an elder, and then this revered group is served plates delivered by others. “Go take Grandma a plate,” is a gentle refrain, reminding the youth of the importance of honoring their older ones.

At community dinners I attended, there was traditionally a stew of dry meat and potatoes, berry pudding, frybread, and fruit along with modern fare, like lasagna. Dry meat is dried buffalo meat.

In early July, I visited a friend for the Northern Cheyenne Fourth of July Powwow, a social event that is both a celebration and a ceremony with give-aways over four days. Their annual gathering draws people from the region, some returning home from afar, and visitors–always a few non-Indians, like me. I remember pondering, especially given the post-Dances With Wolves-inspired popularity of Native American culture–to the point of cultural appropriation by the New Age, “Why are there so few white people attending real pow wows?” Especially in Indian Country, on reservations. Early Summer is visiting season, when doors are open in anticipation. “If you show up, you are meant to be here. Ma’heo brought you here for a reason.”

I participated in food preparations for a Sundance a week after the pow wow. Buffalo from Bozeman were gifted from “that big TV guy, from his ranch out there.” Ted Turner donated a few head of buffalo to the tribe. I was impressed; the mogul has established friendly terms with all 7 tribes in Montana. After slaughtering, the buffalo were distributed to tribal members through the five Cheyenne warrior societies, each family belongs to one: Chiefs, Elk Horn Scrapers, Crazy Dog/Dog Soldier, Bowstring, and Kit Fox; my friend’s family belonged to the Kit Fox society.

Ernestine Two Moons, Cheyenne; cutting buffalo meat, MT 1992. Photo: Lisa Gruwell

The Kit Fox women taught me to cut dry meat. Most impressive was the skill of the elder women. It’s like butterflying a roast but more complex, a process using a knife to turn a 3-D hunk of meat into a linear form; it becomes like red lace. After cutting, the thin meat was dipped into a large enamel pot filled with cool salted water, then draped over pine poles. “The salt keeps the flies away,” the women tell me, “in the sun, it dries faster than hanging inside by the stove in wintertime.” The dried meat is stored in brown paper bags that are hung indoors.
The Cheyenne women were patient, kind, and humorous, sharing stories as we sat around a picnic table heaped with meat. I appreciated how the processing and storing of meat is a skill honed over a lifetime. Reflecting, I re-experience their acceptance of me as a non-native person who was there to listen and learn and understand who they are. I wasn’t there to judge, convert, teach, fix, sell, or convince then to change their ways. I had nothing for them but photos–in the days of opting for double prints when developing a roll of film. Every picture I made, a copy went to the person who was its subject. I was there to learn, more so than I realized at the time.

Ernestine Two Moons, cutting buffalo meat for drying. MT 1992. Photo: Lisa Gruwell

The Cheyenne consider having elders in one’s life as imperative. After the death of one’s grandparents, a tribal member adopts an elder, it’s common for someone to introduce or refer to an elder as “My adopted grandma,” or “My adopted grandfather.” It’s a society wherein everyone is needed, everyone has a role, and roles evolve as one travels the arc of life.
The recognition of the changing roles and responsibilities as one ages is is a cultural universal of Native American society. This is in stark contrast to the dominant Anglo Saxon ethnicity, where I come from; aging is fought like a disease and is to be avoided and denied. Imagining life in a society where aging is revered not feared, I found myself looking forward to elder-hood. Trusting reciprocity, I would know that what I have given and done on my journey through life will come back to me; I would know that I’d still be included in my community. I would not be forgotten, left behind, or considered a burden because I am post-child bearing and raising, retired, slowing down, no longer drive, have gray hair… There exists a commonly held reverence for elders in Native American society. They are respected for life experience, honored for sharing history and wisdom through story, and sought out as instructors of sacred knowledge. Native elders have confidence and character from a long life as a participating member of a tribe. Reverence for elders creates a place in their community as perpetually important members of the tribe. Living long and enduring much, they now gratefully accept the seat and the plate that is offered to them. To be Cheyenne means you have elders in your life until you become one.

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Topanga Canyon in the Sixties

Ginseng, Yarn, Mime

     Topanga Canyon was home in the late 1960s. My best friend was Stephanie. I only got to see her part time; with divorced parents, she lived mostly with her dad in a distant town; she and her brother flew down from the Bay Area once a month to be with their mom in Topanga. Just one weekend a month! I always felt this was unfair. I adored Stephanie’s mom. She was hippie chique. And she had a career. “Need any help here? I’m an RN,” she offered once, when we were out and about and a need for medical assistance arose. She was a beta-tester in the emerging field of holistic health, advocating supplements and natural foods. She wore beautiful bracelets that jangled. With long dark hair, she wore the lower half down and upper half in a wide bun, tied round with thin woven belts, a weave of color trailing behind her when she walked. It amazed me how she transformed from her nurse white self–including white hat, white nylons, white shoes–into her hip mom self by un-pining her hair, slipping on hip-hugger bell-bottom jeans, sandals, and jewelry. Her name was Nawanda, she’d changed her proper mainstream name to one that suited her new life. But at work, she was probably still called Claire. Both of Stephanie’s parents had re-married, so she had two step-parents. Another admirable aspect of Nawanda’s self-determination in the Sixties is that she married a black man, Jay. We all called him Jaybird. He wore sandals and African batik shirts. I loved his deep slow laugh, sounding like brook water babbling over rocks.

On Saturdays during the summer, there was an arts and crafts fair beside the Topanga General Store in a large lot shaded by sprawling oak trees. It was like having a small-scale Renaissance Pleasure Faire right in our own small town. Hippies sold pottery, hand made soap, patchouli oil, tie-dye and hand-sewn clothing, health food, herbs, beads, jewelry and other hippie supplies. Jaybird had a ginseng booth. Chinese medicine was being more widely appreciated and accepted through the syncretic hippie movement; Nawanda and Jaybird were early adopters and, though their work, part of the holistic health movement that was powerful component of the Counterculture. Stephanie and I loved to hang out in the ginseng booth, decorated Bohemian style with Persian rugs and giant pillows. All forms of creativity were encouraged with Counterculture kids; Stephanie and I took to finger crochet. We made small things like bracelets and rings with yarn and beads. Emulating the grownups, Stephanie and I decided that a small triangle of space between the ginseng booth and its neighbor would be just right for us to set up our own mini-booth to sell our jewelry. We stacked a few wooden fruit crates for a display stand, and tacked up a sign made from a round paper plate, reading: “Finger Croshay, 5 to 25 cents.” We carefully laid out our creative endeavors: colorful, wearable art from yarn and beads. Mostly people stopped and marveled at how adorable we were, admiring our simple fare, someone snapped a photo, yet we sold nothing. People commented on our sign as if we couldn’t hear them: “Oh, how cute. Look how they spelled crochet!” I was so embarrassed our sign was misspelled. Spell-check was 20 years ahead.

Stephanie and Lisa at a birthday party, Topanga Canyon 1968
Photo: Paul Gruwell

Enter the Mime. All hippie gatherings had music and movement; Topanga’s Saturday open market was popular for strolling minstrels and performers, as if a Chautauqua wagon loaded with Renaissance actors rolled into town. Working the shaded fair ground, the Mime had the requisite white gloves, beret, and white face paint, updated with a tie-dye t-shirt. On his rotation past our tiny booth, he stopped. With mime exaggeration, he approached and admired every piece of yarn jewelry we had on display, attracting a crowd. On another circulation, the Mime bought a ring for a nickel. Rolling it onto his gloved pinky he held his hand out to admire how the purple yarn looked on his gloved hand, as if it were a diamond ring. Throughout the day, when the Mime circulated by, we whispered to each other, “Look, he’s still wearing the ring!” He became our best customer. He admired a bracelet while placing around his wrist, and his attention generated a few sales. We sold most of our inventory and got busy making more.
Later in the day, the Mime returned to our booth. The way he smiled kindly at us, I could see past his greasepaint and into his eyes. Of course without words, I knew he genuinely adored us, wanted to encourage us. Admiring our new round of merchandise, still unsold, he dug dramatically deep into his mime pocket, and pulled out a nickel and presented it to us as if it was a gold coin. He dug into another seemingly bottomless pocket and produced a quarter, then he found a nickel behind his ear, and from thin air, a dime, and he bought every yarn adornment. The drawn-out transaction drew a huge crowd to watch the Mime, our tiny booth morphed into his performance space. The event was so magical that I recall it vividly to this day: the mime and his white gloves striped with multi-colored yarn bijoux.

On the wooden crate, Stephanie and I counted our quarters, dimes, and nickels. We stacked the coins by size, like pyramids. How gratifying it felt to have made something by hand and sold it. We earned our very own money! Money we could spend however we wanted. We didn’t have to report it to anyone. We put our booth away, then skipped over to the Topanga General Store and disappeared, re-emerging with ice cream bars in colorful wrappers. We quickly found a shady spot and delightfully devoured the cold sweet treats forbidden by our natural food mothers.

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Cheyenne Children, Protected and Loved

The Northern Northern Cheyenne Reservation is in SE Montana, beside the Custer battlefield. I lived here in the early 1990s, and have often reflected on good things I learned by Being There. Early on, I found that most of my questions were answered by observing. I learned to listen more than talk.

Cheyenne Chief Society meeting, Lame Deer, MT. November 1992 Photo: Lisa Gruwell

I am touched by how gentle the Cheyenne are with their children; yelling at kids is not the norm, as it is in the surrounding American culture. Tribal society is family society. Neighbors are considered aunts or uncles, and all kids are close like siblings or cousins, and the result is that they all take responsibility for one another.

At gatherings, like powwows, ceremonies or parties, kids regularly look over at the adults to see who’s watching; this behavior is a cultural universal. Invariably, a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle will be looking back. If the kids are getting too rambunctious, the watching adult merely shakes her head or gives a certain look. Responding, the kids quiet down. I observed this over and over. It was like dance partners who communicate with look and touch.

Cheyenne boys at Chief Society meeting, November ’92. Photo: Lisa Gruwell

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Meet Lisa Gruwell Spicer and Story Peace

Into the blue over Mendocino County, 2010 Photo: Lisa G Spicer

My unconventional life makes sense after reading The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock. I was inspired in my 20s by the Hero’s Journey, then popularized by Joseph Campbell; he reminded us that the tale of leaving home, finding autonomy and returning home is Universal. Now many years later, I know now that Woman’s essential life path is innately different from our male equivalent; ours is a definitive heroine’s journey. As a psychologist, Murdock finds patterns among her patients’ experiences and dreams, brilliantly overlaying these patterns like parchment paper over Greek Goddess mythologies. There are unmistakable parallels between the life stories of contemporary women and the stories from the dawn of Western culture: Persephone, Demeter, Artemus, Athena, and so many more. The Heroine’s Journey reveals that these goddess mythologies are actually navigational tools for women, oral tradition has sustained archetypes, who are teachers. Ancient stories communicate crucial messages about the development of female psyche. Stories from around the world, kept alive through storytelling, fairy tales, folk lore, song, poetry, and mythology communicate ancient wisdom to women through time about survival, intuition, addiction, robbery, rape, reclamation, creativity, nurturing, and returning home…

Now in mid-life, my daughter grown and on my own, I take my life back and return home to my soul self, to my handmade life. I make peace with my unconventional life through the stories I have gathered on my way, and reach into my archives to understand who I have become today.

By the time I left my mother’s home, I knew what I wanted to do, but not how. Setting out to discover myself in relation to the world, I wanted to figure out where I fit in. Participating in an international program for youth, my last semester of high school was a provincial homestay and lycee (school) in southern France. A few years later, I was working in corporate video production, then on to Seattle’s KCTS TV in the PBS affiliate’s documentary unit. As my career and interests expanded, I lived on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation–where I heard war stories that defy the academic version of Native American history; I accompanied Lummi tribal members to Mexico, documenting (in 16mm film) their alliance with the Maya Lacandones, both indigenous groups working to preserve their respective rain forests; and later, to western Kenya, creating videos to support successful health programs during the AIDS crisis.

Lisa, Seattle
Photo: Paul Gruwell

In the great woods of Washington’s Pacific Northwest, our family matriarch was my mom’s mother, Anita Anderson, whose family history tells the tale of Seattle pioneer immigrants from Sweden. Anita’s dad Carl Anderson prospered on the Yukon Gold Rush in the late 1800s. My mom’s dad was Dutch, Herman Wickers. Starting out as fishmonger in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, he became a grocer and married Anita. They bought a mercantile in the newly clear-cut Alderwood Manor (today’s Lynnwood), north of Seattle. Conservative, successful, and widowed at 55, Anita Wickers upheld family traditions with formal holiday dinner parties, Her family gatherings were among relative-strangers wearing Aqua Velva aftershave and white Naugahyde accessories. Like gravy, pretense was thick and poured over everything. Family code left unsaid what everyone knew: Gramma Wick-Wick disdains the choice her daughter made of a husband: an artist! A Bohemian! My four year old self was bored, shiny shoes swinging under the well appointed table. So, I told a story to the dinner guests about my imaginary dog, sitting there beside me. I was feeding him from the table, which I knew was bad etiquette. I discovered that breaking protocol made them laugh! Silver clanked on china. I exist. They were listening. And I got the party going.

It was 1965, the intersection of social change. The adage my parents grew up with: “Children should be seen and not heard,” was being replaced by the emerging counter culture philosophy: “Do your own thing,” and “If it feels good, do it, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Paul Gruwell, 1970
Betty Gruwell, 1971

My parents were among the first wave of Hippies in the Sixties, and never stopped being hip, never returned to the mainstream. My dad, Paul Gruwell, became a successful artist and animator in Los Angeles. We were living in Topanga Canyon when the free love aspect of the counterculture movement brought divorce to our family. My mom, Betty Gruwell, was free to pursue her agrarian dreams. We joined the back-to-the-land movement.

A reverse-migration was underway as counterculture families “returned to the garden.” We were part of a wave of people who moved to small farms in the redwoods of Northern California. Our arrival created cultural conflict with the old-timer ranchers, fishers, and loggers. Growing up as a hippie kid has always been a strong part of my identity.

Lisa & sister Mia, Mendocino Coast 1975
Photo: Paul Gruwell

The American Counterculture of the 60s – 70s is an overly- criticized and misrepresented social phenomenon. From 1980 until only recently, Western society has dismissed, diminished, quashed, and made fun of the message of the Counterculture movement: peace, make love not war, reverence for Mother Earth, being kind, being healthy, being free, sharing, conserving, equal rights and justice for all.

Lisa in Bellingham, Larabee State Park, 2002 Photo: F. Dent
Lisa, Bellingham Photo: F.Dent

To understand the cultural intersections to which I’m drawn, including my own subculture, I became an anthropologist, earning an MA in 2012. My thesis is about the American Counterculture Movement. There is clear evidence that this revolution was an economic and political threat to the status quo, and there was concerted efforts from on high to discredit, to kill the movement and its leaders.

Lisa, Bellingham
Photo: F.Dent

I want to encourage others who were children of the Children of the Revolution to share their stories with anyone who will listen. Our stories want to be told. Stories are a way to understand how we are shaped by cultural-social influences, personal choices, acts of Nature, and acts of God. I am making peace through storytelling. This visual storytelling site is inspired by my journey journals, photography, artifacts, stories and projects from a career in documentary film, video production, and photography. Story Peace.

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