Growing Up Hippie

Growing up in my family was a trip. At any time I could be hauled off to an impromptu gathering overrun by urchins with names like Gaia, Tao, Cinnamon, and Raven. We once visited some back-to-the-land friends on a 100-acre plot in rural Quebec where our weaver hostess greeted us wearing nothing but a smile. With a dozen families wandering around naked, the choice was to stand out in a sundress or bare my awkward, 11-year-old body with mosquito-bite breasts.

My sibs and I tried not to stare at all the exposed flesh. Instead, we passed the time by hooking a bass and grilling it in coconut body oil by the lake, then hanging out in a sauna fashioned from a canvas tent and bonfire-heated rocks. Every so often a grown-up would sprinkle pot leaves and water onto the hot stones. I remember wondering if I would get high.

My mother and her friends considered themselves artists, not hippies. But to everyone else they were flower children. Maybe it was the Mexican and Indian peasant clothes they wore– on formal occasions like weddings–or their childlike belief in the magical powers of plant foods: goldenseal for flu and pickled plums for sore throats. My mom even tried to cure my vision problems with eye exercises (“place your palms on closed lids and visualize spirals”), until a teacher persuaded her that it was time to get me glasses.

The counterculture was a strange world to be born into. Or, more specifically, to fall into–in the arms of my yogi/mathematician father, who delivered me without benefit of medical training. (I was the second of my mother’s four home births.) Like many hippies, my father had led a nomadic existence. In 1965 and 1966, he was featured in a series of Toronto Star articles documenting his spiritual journey overland to India in a vintage Cadillac and describing his goal to found what the newspaper called an “ashran.” Sadly, he died of cancer when I was a year old.

After his death, my 26-year-old mother bundled up my older sister and me and hit the road. We shared a ride from Toronto to Vancouver, where we spent a winter near Kitsilano’s hippie haven, now yuppified West Fourth Avenue. Then she piled us into an old truck rigged with a camper and headed for Mexico. En route, she and her new boyfriend, a dropout from Berkeley, held “spontaneous music workshops” for patients with mental disabilities.

In the villages of Chiapas, Mom went native. She ground corn by hand to make tortillas and embroidered her own designs on blouses, much to the amusement of the Mayan women. She and her boyfriend held jam sessions with Mayan musicians, a radical activity for gringos back then. “What we were doing was revolutionary,” she recalled recently. “We were part of the revolution!” One of her boyfriend’s goals was to set up a Mayan-run radio station. He succeeded after we left him there when I was 3.

Mom returned to Ottawa to live with my future stepfather, Russell. He was one of the men behind the Wasteland, a coffeehouse that drew counterculture heroes like Bruce Cockburn and John and Yoko. Drugs were surely in the background of this scene, but my strangely puritanical parents avoided them. They didn’t live in a commune, indulge in group sex, or drop LSD. The only hydroponic thing in our household was the commercial alfalfa sprout farm in our basement–15 bathtubs full of seeds that I watered in return for an allowance.

My assumptions about life, from relationships to morality, were shaped by these people, who quoted Zen Buddhism and traded tips on building yurts–those circular Mongolian tents that were a hippie obsession. Though less notorious than their Haight-Ashbury counterparts, my mother’s crowd also represented an iconoclastic and influential radical ethos. They were spiritual seekers, committed to personal and social transformation and abstemious to the point of asceticism. Their life choices were part of a continuing social experiment, from earnest meditation practices to a willingness to go on welfare rather than compromise their values. As their own purse-lipped parents would say, “That’s all fine and good for them, but what about the children?” Nobody knew how offspring of the Age of Aquarius would turn out. Well, I do.

From childhood embarrassment to adolescent conformism, it was hard not to rebel against my parents’ freewheeling ways. A week before starting first grade, I begged my parents to buy me a lunch-box: a spanking new plastic one with a picture of Sesame Street or Barbie, the kind every other child in school would bring. For days I lobbied, emphasizing that it came with a Thermos, but my mom and stepfather couldn’t understand why I wanted such a tacky, commercial thing. On the morning of the big day, they presented me with a plain cardboard box with a thick wire for a handle. Inside was a jar of milk, an apple, and a whole-wheat sandwich. Pleased with their ingenuity, my parents beamed. I was crestfallen. At noon hour I sat in a corner, trying to avoid the stares and snickers.

Desperate to be normal, I rarely invited kids over. They would see the outboard motor stored in plain view in our dining room. They would see my hyperactive 6-year-old brother leaping around the house, naked as a monkey, slowing down only to retract his foreskin to gross us out. My friends would inevitably turn up their noses at the snack food they were offered. I’m not making this up: To a tentful of 7-year-olds my mother once offered a late-night treat of pickled eggs.

Like many adult children of hippies, by the time I hit university I had turned to therapy to try to make sense of my family and to adapt to mainstream society. My current therapist is an expert on perfectionism. He believes people develop this trait as children in the attempt to create order out of a chaotic environment. For me, this took the form of a boot-camp approach to life: As a 12-year-old, I kept color-coded logs of when I exercised, what I ate, and how much I practiced my cello, down to the minute.

In high school, I would turn down dates because boys might interfere with my regimen as a classical musician-in-training. By 16, I earned a music scholarship to a prestigious American university. At 22, I had already performed with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall. But raised to value creativity and originality above all, I was devastated when it dawned on me that I had never played for pleasure or made my own music. So I dropped the cello entirely. This may seem like a waste, but for 17 years the rigid, high-performance world of classical music had provided a refuge of structure and consistency so lacking at home.

One had only to see my bedroom in high school to get the picture: It was as orderly as that of a Victorian spinster, a beacon of neatness amid the piles of paper strewn about every surface of the dining room, the mess of my Mom’s in-home painting studio, and the crumbs ground into the threadbare antique Chinese carpet my grandmother had left us. My compulsive tidiness was a form of rebellion, a goad to a disorganized mother who had fought hard to escape the oppressive spotlessness and formality of her own privileged childhood. The intergenerational pattern continues.

Every stick of furniture in my parents’ house was secondhand, long before recycling became hip; so were my decidedly unfashionable clothes, mostly from Salvation Army thrift stores. To this day, my mother is more likely to invest in pottery and paintings than something as banal as a new couch. Buying furniture seems so suburban.

I recently bought a mattress, one with coils and a box spring–something no one in my family has ever owned. Before it was delivered, I was plagued with unease. Money wasn’t the issue; as a magazine editor I can afford it. Rather, a vague sense of imprinted guilt crept in, accompanied by images of distended coils rusting in a landfill. What if everyone on the planet had a mattress like this? Where would all the mattresses go when people had finished with them?

I am 32 years old and still not sure how to feed myself. I blame it on Michio Kushi, the Japanese guru who brought the Zen macrobiotic diet to North America. My parents lived in one of Kushi’s Boston houses for a time, attempting to heal my birth father of terminal illness. Following this diet based on the laws of yin and yang, my mother would add a handful of salt to greens with all the water pressed out and call it “salad.” Despite my father’s death at age 29, her faith in the macrobiotic way never wavered.

As I grew up, food was imbued with powers of good and evil. Sugar was excessively yin and naturally verboten, but seemingly innocent foods were equally suspect. Potatoes, along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, were found to be in the same family as deadly nightshade and therefore viewed as toxic.

Sugar became my drug of choice. Today I can mainline up to three packs a day of Werther’s Originals, those diabolical butterscotch candies. I swear off them for months at a time but, like a woman obsessed, I inevitably fall off the wagon. Last night I enjoyed a dinner of brown rice, tofu, and salad–followed by a bag of licorice and jujubes.

Living with hippie parents wasn’t all bad. Despite our modest means, I grew up in an exceptionally rich cultural environment. My mother painted exuberantly and my community-minded stepfather funded multicultural arts groups as a bureaucrat and taught fiction writing. I was surrounded by sculptors, poets, musicians, and intellectuals. My accomplishments as musician, writer, adventurer, and friend are directly related to the values I grew up with.

At least one study bears this out. In the early 1990s, after many hippies’ kids had graduated from high school, Thomas Weisner, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, reported that “a strong parental commitment to one’s family lifestyle can contribute positively to children’s school achievement.” This was certainly true for my older sister and me, who were placed in enriched and gifted classes in grade school.

Being a hippie kid was cool in some ways. While classmates zoned in front of the idiot box (mostly off-limits to me), I spent my free time crocheting Rasta-style hats, playing make-believe, and pounding clay. By 13, I was sewing my own clothes and working my way through my parents’ boxes of books, from Siddhartha to The Joy of Sex. And whatever my siblings and I might say today about the care we got from that free-spirited generation, we always knew we were loved.

I was raised with a combination of intense care-giving and benign neglect, a contradiction to which many scions of hippiedom can relate. One of my best friends is a granola-fed high achiever who similarly spent years hiding her counterculture origins. She too had to teach herself basic life skills because her mother was either busy finding herself or had never learned. Both of us endured restrictive diets, weird home remedies, “voluntary simplicity” (involuntary in the kids’ case), and parents who treated us more like peers than children, confiding in us about everything from money woes to their love lives.

What kind of parents will we be? When it comes to creating families of our own, we Adult Children of Hippies border on 1950s-style reactionary. The other day my friend and I were mulling over how to have children in the current economic climate, and what sort of men we should choose for this momentous commitment. Sipping tea with us, her mother was baffled. “We never thought about things that way,” she giggled. “Babies just sort of happened.” Her generation had always gone with the flow–why would motherhood be any different?

It helps to remember that my mother was widowed with two kids when she was barely an adult herself. She has long since finished growing up. Today, she is a confident woman whose paintings are shown in prominent galleries and purchased for major art collections. I now turn to her with creative dilemmas, as well as issues ranging from office politics to my sex life. My mother and my stepfather have each come to resemble the parent I craved and now aspire to be: warm, attentive, inspiring, and actively engaged in the outside world.

Mom spent last year showing her work in locations ranging from Newfoundland to the Netherlands. In the same period, my own wanderlust took me to Brazil and the Middle East, where I found warmth and intellectual colleagues in the heart of the Arab world. Co-workers thought I was nuts to hop on a plane to Syria just weeks after 9/11, but my open-minded parents supported my decision to attend the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture in the Islamic World. Before I left, Mom reminisced about her 1966 honeymoon with my birth father in Greece and nearby Turkey, where they backpacked through ancient towns, meditated on ruins, and showered under waterfalls.

In Jordan, after skinny-dipping in the Dead Sea at sunset, I could no longer deny being my mother’s daughter. Hadn’t I hung out and jammed with musicians in Brazil and Cuba, in unwitting imitation of her Mexican odyssey? Hadn’t I learned that “normal” is overrated? As an adult, I was happiest when life was a variation on a bohemian rhapsody. After all those attempts to hide my hippie past, this insight was music to my ears.

Adriana Barton is a health journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Wired for Music: A Search for Health and Joy Through the Science of Sound. She is a former staff reporter at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a former cellist. Reprinted from the Canadian magazine Elm Street (April 2003).

  • Updated on Oct 1, 2021
  • Originally Published on Nov 1, 2003
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