About The Author

Author/Artist Samma Negus

Author/Artist Samma Negus

Into a staid midwestern family (roots in New England), in Shaker Heights, one of the most affluent suburbs in America, I was born. I was a serious, quiet child, rarely seen to laugh. I studied things carefully. In most photos I bore an expression of mixed doubt and resignation. At the age of three I began to draw, and never stopped, for decades. It took my mind away from daily things. Around age eight I began to write stories. I was happy as an introvert, though my parents were puzzled. What had they borne?

I viewed my parents’ relationship, loving though it was, with some misgiving. I placed a bet with our maid that I would never marry.

I was not drawn to religion. Sundays my parents carted us to church for a morning of (to me) endless pontification, dreary singing. It was easy to disappear in the shadowy back of the large Episcopal church, where my mind could wander at will. Please click on the tabs below to read more about my life.

At Age ten I was sent to dancing school (ballroom dancing), which I abhorred. Age twelve I got braces and had a growth spurt which shot me up to my present height. I towered over the boys, who smirked and joked about me. Only one mild-mannered lad would ever willingly dance with me, though I can’t remember that we ever spoke. (Where are you Oakley? You must have grown into a kind person.) I suffered through about five years of this ritual considered so necessary by “society.”

At the private girls’ school I attended growing up, I was in the main ostracized by classmates for being rather reserved, and perhaps not entirely comfortable in their presence. Most were innocently narrow-minded, shallow, snobbish types. (I say this with no malice but objectivity.)

I need to add here that it wasn’t all bad. I’ve always been blessed with at least a few incredibly wonderful, loyal friends. And I have a very dear younger sister, born under the sign of Leo, who has fiercely defended me, lifelong, from carping family and acquaintances. I have a loved nephew whose restive heart is a mirror image of my own. And—the summer months were always spent on Nantucket, an island off Massachussetts, in a small cottage near the beach. These brief intervals were like gemlike oases of untroubled happiness in the oppressive barrens of life in the Cleveland suburbs. I loved the clear air snapping with wind, the island’s varied beaches, the moors. I hoarded my mental images of Nantucket all year and they helped steady me through my trials. I formed there a lifelong attachment to the sea. Ever after, the sea appeared in everything—drawings, photos, many poems. Many life choices.

Back to the aforementioned trials. The crowning blow came at age eighteen, when I made my debut. By then I was wildly rebellious, though had done well in school grade-wise. I must have been the world’s most awkward, desperately unhappy debutante. You might ask why I went through with it. I guess it was for my parents—they wanted this for me so badly. Too compassionate. Somehow I got through it. By that time all I wanted was to get as far away from the midwest and my pained, mystified family as I could. I’d gotten into Stanford, so headed west.

Here I must ask the forbearance of any loyal Stanford student or alumnus who may be reading this. Stanford did not turn out to be the great release I expected. It was a mismatch made in hell. Stanford’s path soared goldenly in one direction, laden with social and material rewards, perfect for the mostly rich and materialistic students. My path veered murkily off into who knew where. Actually my first years there were some of the worst of my life. I wish I’d had a counselor to steer me through, but would I have listened? I was ornery. So, Stanford was a fine opportunity mostly wasted on me. An expensive opportunity.

But after the first few floundering years there, I began to toughen up and wake up to things that flowed outside the mainstream. I gravitated steadily toward a number of rebel souls who hung at the fringes of the collegiate scene—poets, writers, bikers, artists, surfers. And found respite, acceptance, vindication.

Though I found most of my classes dry, I was drawn to some courses given by Professor Kurt Reinhart on Existentialism. He was unusual in that he passionately believed in and lived what he taught. He was full of a fiery personal conviction that moved me. This was the first philosophy in my life that satisfied, that made sense, that could be—I thought—my lifelong rationale, support, truth, comfort. (In some ways, it has been so. As Thomas Merton said, Existentialism is only the other side of the profoundly religious nature.) My hero was Zarathustra, the super-character created by Neitzsche. I began to feel hopeful, the ability to rise above things.

I did get expelled for a semester for letting mice loose in a lecture by Margaret Keene that we true artists wanted to boycott (remember the bug-eyed children?) In the interim, I spent some time in New York City at the Art Students’ League. This included a rather free-wheeling night life centered in Greenwich Village, though my parents had made a valiant effort to tie me down by stashing me at the Barbizon Hotel for women. I returned to Stanford a more diehard bohemian than ever. With my beautiful “oddball” friends I would go to art shows and jazz clubs in San Francisco, where we listened to some of the great musicians of that time—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk. Coleman Hawkens, the world’s greatest jazz saxophone player.

After Stanford I wanted to leave America behind, to get rid of the dust and silt of materialism and forget the terrible, soul-wrenching experiences I’d gone through. With some Stanford buddies, went to Greece and drove overland to the Near East as far as Kuwait. In Istanbul, the first time I heard the muezzins call from the mosques in the evening, I had a tremendous feeling of inner awakening, response, which I’ve never forgotten. The plaintive powerful singing went deep into me and set in my soul. I drank it in. I never released it.

As we drove though Iran, Iraq (this was before any war), I saw so much that resonated in me more than anything in America ever had. The mosques—I wanted to stay and meditate. In one of those small towns, I sat awake for half the night in the darkness of my bare solitary room, feeling my heart pulled so strongly by something. I lost myself in meditative response, in tears of joy. No one knew.

After that trip, I didn’t want to go home. My poor parents, patrician and polite, easy to flaunt, grieved over my various choices in life but supported me financially as they feared I would otherwise be living in the street.

I went alone to Fulpmes-am-Stubai in Austria, a tiny mountain town where I lived in a garret room with drawing equipment and a broken window that let the winter wind through, and tried sporadically to learn to ski. But when I came home and took my ski boots off and kept seeing my toes frozen into little squares that stuck together, I stopped the skiing lessons. I devoted my days to drawing, the nights to “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and its ilk.

Met up with my family for an abortive ski vacation in Switzerland (we were light-years apart by then). Then back to Spain, where I lived with some friends in a series of ever more remote little houses. Gradually the amenities fell from my life. The first house had a toilet perched over a deep hole; a watercan sat beside it. There was one ceiling lightbulb for the whole house. The next houses were old ones rejected by peasants as they moved from the countryside into the towns: thick heavy walls, small windows with no panes, a stuffing of seaweed between rafters and roof to keep the heat and cold out. Our “bathroom” was an ancient overgrown cactus garden where chickens scratched daily, and the sun beat down, perfectly hygienic. Our light came from kerosene lamps, water from wells where spidery insects and motes played.

We rose with the dawn, worked creatively (we were different types of artists and writers), slept at dark with the doors open to the hills of Formentera, the wind blowing the beaded curtains. In the winter, we went out to find huge fallen fig tree trunks and drag them to the house. We dragged the ends together in the huge fireplace, and after the fire was lit, it burned for three days, as we slowly moved the huge trunks inward. It was the only warm place to live and sleep—at the fire. I drew and drew. This was a wonderful time.

One large-log fire was unforgettable because I nearly died from the fumes it emitted after we had failed to quench it at night. It smoldered on. I woke partly up just as I was passing into a brilliant, globe-like golden light. I couldn’t feel or move my limbs, and realized I was half gone. Through a tremendous effort of will, I rolled onto the floor and crawled out the door to fresh air.

For five years I lived on the Balearic Islands, except for summers in Berlin. Berlin is the most lovely, welcoming, laid-back European city. Some of my friends there were self-taught mechanics, and we tried to start a car business, buying in Germany and England and selling in America. It never took off, but we broke even for a couple of years.

One more trip to the Near East—this one for business—with some German buddies from Berlin, one of whom was a heroin addict. He shot himself up daily along the way, and was never quite with us, drifting in and out of our reality. Jochen, do you yet live? We drove, as before, in an ancient Mercedes diesel. (Thousands abound across Asia; they never die.) But only as far as Lebanon, where we made a questionable purchase from some Arabs—a good business investment, my friends thought—then returned to Berlin with it.

This meeting near Beirut was memorable, clandestine. We met up with our connection at a gas station, then drove in tandem to a house that stood alone on an arid hill. A whole clan of Arabs waited there, with the women secreted in the back of the house. It was a merry meeting, we all got on well. I was the sole woman. Sat around in a circle with these Arab guys, some of whom wore sidearms, holstered ostentatiously cowboy-style. We laughed, shared stories, completed the business at hand, sealed the deal with a pipe passed around. Became boisterous. They showed us how they could make music on their homemade instruments, drums etc. Late in the night, they waved us off with our illegal cargo.

I returned to Ibiza with my friends. I was deeply grieving for what reason I did not know, bitterly unhappy. Nothing could pull me free. I had an art show in Vienna given for me by my friend Ernst Fuchs, a well-known Austrian painter, but nothing helped. It was then I found a book by an oriental holy man that changed my life, or ended it such as it was. That book drew us to India, where I lived in an ashram for some months. A very kind and deeply spiritual swami there took me under his wing. I spent hours meditating every day, sometimes taking part in the special Indian services or pujas that went on for six, eight hours into the night. I fasted days at a time. Alternate waves of profound hope and anguish poured over me daily.

I returned to the States, Oregon, where I formally renounced the world to become an ascetic, a nun in a cloistered monastic Order (non-traditional, of course). Where life began anew.

How can I describe the regeneration of the inner, spiritual life? I haven’tfound the words yet. The first years of my monastic life were intensely difficult. The difficulties continued but gradually became muted, as an inner strength and connectedness grew and focussed my attention, heart, mind, to the point that outer events began to fade in intensity and importance. I struggled to transmute the need to create artistically into energy more useful to the monastic life. After I succeeded, I began to jot down music and poetry in spare time; my perpetually busy life would not allow for more, though when on retreat I draw.

But nothing can really portray that dark and solitary, blindingly luminous inner journey. My poems are the merest residue of that life, a soul’s attempt to share, to approximate, to in some way set lamps along the dark passage,giving glimmers of awareness, to send messages, to warn, to tempt. They mark a discrete journey, as do—so much better—the poems of St. John of the Cross.

I am, of course, more draftsman than poet. So you might get more from the drawings. The poems provide limited verbal access. You will have to decide, best beloved.

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