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Author Dinner Talk w/ Peter Coyote

by Amie Windsor Sonoma West Staff Writer - amie@sonomawest.com 

When a Zen Buddhist priest kicks off an interview confessing he’d like to pick his heroin habit back up, should he live to the age of 90 — you know it’s going to be an entertaining evening.

So it was Sunday, May 22 at the French Garden Restaurant and Bistro, during a special evening with author and actor Peter Coyote and KQED’s senior editor Scott Shafer. The event, which included a silent auction, dinner and champagne reception, was a benefit for the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center.

“We’re very thankful you could all be here tonight,” Diana Rich, executive director for the Sebastopol Cultural Community Center said to the 100-plus individuals attending the event.

The event featured Coyote and his second book, “The Rainman’s Cure Third Cure: An Irregular Education,” which was originally published Jan. 1, 2015. The book, which is available at Copperfield’s, is a memoir detailing Coyote’s experiences and lessons growing up with a violent father, coming into adulthood in the ‘60s, experimenting with — and loving — drugs and more.

Shafer and Coyote’s conversation flitted on many of the book’s topics Sunday night, hovering heavily on Coyote’s involvement with the Diggers. The Diggers emerged from Coyote’s time spent with the San Francisco Mime Troup. A revolutionary activist improvisational group, the Diggers promulgated a vision of free society. They offered free meals, had a free store, free medical clinic and held free parties.

“All you had to do was walk through a frame of reference and you were welcome,” Coyote said.

Drugs were a rampant component of Coyote’s lifestyle, marking memories of his life like flags on golf course. His last name is due, in part, to a peyote trip during college in which he shared eight buttons amongst friends. He recalled walking out to a field, feeling wolf-like and running around.

“I woke up still high the next morning and I didn’t know if the footprints were mine or someone else’s” Coyote said.

Years later, at the age of 26, he told the story to a friend who told him he had two options: to see the experience as a hallucination or as an opportunity to enter a new persona.

“I became Peter Coyote. Nobody, even myself knew who Peter Coyote was,” he said. “It was great and liberating. I’m 74 now and I’ve been Peter Coyote twice as long as anyone else.”

But there are scarring reminders from the drug use too; he buried 18 close friends between 1965 and 1975. Although he reminisced about his heroin habit — “it was wonderful” — Coyote explained the sobering day that turned his addiction around.

“I got high with a friend and when I woke up, he was dead on the table,” Coyote said. Coyote was raising his young daughter at the time. “She would have been placed in foster care if that had been me.”

The experience propelled Coyote into the San Francisco Zen Center, where he studied Buddhism in 1974. He was recently transmitted as a Zen Buddhist priest.

“It’s basically when your teacher sticks a meat thermometer in you and says you’re done,” Coyote said.

He gravitated toward Buddhism, which has helped him learn humans are grounded in the idea of freedom, but that idea can be given up.

“I’ve also learned that we are born with an indisputable originality,” Coyote said. “When everyone tries to be different, you wind up with a mob.”

Coyote doesn’t want to be part of a mob. He’s content in Sebastopol, where he currently resides, tending to his 40 fruit trees, taking care of his two dogs and living with his wife. He is also embedding himself within the community, offering his famous voice — which stars as the narrator for every Ken Burns documentary — to Sonoma West Medical Center radio spots.

“I want to live in this town as a constructive person,” Coyote said.