Childhood, Connection, Existentialism, Life Story, Meditation, Spiritualilty, Theosophy, World Religions
At the end of my freshman year of high school we moved again. One might think that I would have been happy to get away and have a new start in a new place, but moving away from Claverack, leaving my place of safety at Buttermilk Falls, and the light people to an uncertain fate, broke my heart. The stress and sadness of it affected my body, and I ended up having my perfectly healthy appendix removed because I was doubled up in pain and no other cause was evident.
A few weeks before we left, I was taking an afternoon nap and had a dream in which I clearly saw the gold chain that held the gold coin that my Grandfather had given me break and the gold coin fall on the floor without rolling or spinning. It just fell, and was still.
Less than an hour later, as we sat down to dinner, the telephone rang and before I realized that I was speaking out loud, I said, “Grandpa’s dead.” My mother’s hand came at my face as my father answered the phone. My Aunt Barbara told Dad through her sobs that their father had suffered cardiac arrest and was dead. He had gone out to water the garden and enjoy his after-dinner cigar, and a neighbor had seen him keel over. Bless his heart, he went quickly and peacefully, doing the thing that he loved to do. That garden was his pride and joy.
We went down to Wallingford, PA and stayed with Nana for a few days before we returned once again to the Midwest. The house was so empty without Grandpa’s energy in it, and I felt sorry for Nana. It was raining, as it had been the day of his funeral, and I wrote a poem for her about Grandpa, the garden, the rains, and the love that he shared. I had never seen Nana show any emotion about anything ever before, and I thought I had done something wrong when she cried as she read it. Looking back, I see what a sweet moment we were allowed to share. It was the last time I ever saw her.
A week later, we were settling in to our house in a small town on the far-northwest side of Chicago. Again, his office was in the city, but Dad had settled us as far in to the country as he could get us and still be able to comfortably commute. The town was the second to the last stop on the Northwestern train line, and far behind the fast-moving East Coast of the mid-1960’s. I tried to bury my broken-heartedness at having been uprooted, but I wasn’t at all successful. I became both more reclusive and more rebellious. The rebelliousness was triggered by my mother forcing her way in to my solitude and not allowing me to have any quiet time to myself. My older brother had stayed behind in New York, my older sister was off to college, and that left me to receive the full brunt of her passive-aggressive rage. The only way I could get away from it was to storm out of the house and disappear for a few hours. What a dichotomy: I had to let my anger rage outwardly to find the space to have the inner quiet I needed. It was an effective tool, though, and one I learned to use well against her. A year later, thanks to the seeds that my older sister had planted in the backyard garden, I turned to smoking pot to put up a veil between us.
Books remained the constant in my life. I stayed up late to read and woke up early to do the same. I read what was assigned to me in school plus three or four other books at the same time. I worked my way through Kafka, Beckett, Camus, and Sartre in my sophomore year, and by the summer I had moved on to the Theosophist writers: Bailey, Steiner, and Blavatsky. Somewhere in there, Edgar Cayce also arrived in my world of reading.
I read the Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth of Mohandas K. Gandhi and my life was changed forever. My inner eyes were opened to a completely different way of being in the world, regardless of the obstacles and challenges. This is when I tried to actively change how I was with my mother; I tried to meet her emotional violence against me by practicing passive resistance. The outcome was not always what I was aiming for, but I found strength in the action of trying. I began a meditation practice, and even when she would burst in my room and tell me to clean the refrigerator or some similar thing, anything to get me away from my peace and quiet, I saw that the outcome was much better if I just got up and did it and then returned to my room instead of arguing or even reacting. While I had long before seen her actions and reacted to them (as I had when I found her copulating on the kitchen counter with the real estate broker), I was beginning to see the workings of her mind that led to the actions. I had no words or way to describe it, but I was getting a glimmer of something that would make so much more sense to me in later years when I had studied psychology in-depth.
What was important at the time was that I was learning a way of dealing with my own anger and frustrations that was different from the violence so prevalent with my older siblings. I had been going down that same path and here I was being given a different perspective, a different way of looking at things and reacting to the world around me. Gandhi was my first guru.
I became a vegetarian because of what I read in Gandhi’s story. There wasn’t a lot of information available back then, and I did not do a very good job of being a healthy vegetarian. My mother was convinced that I was doing it to plague her in some way, or as an insult to her cooking, and she chose to hinder my effort as much as she could. I ended up drinking instant breakfast drinks in the morning and, not being able to eat the cafeteria food at school, used some fudgey-tasting diet supplement (which I am sure was taken off the market decades ago) for lunch. Dinner was whatever wasn’t meat in the family meal. Poor diet and long hours coupled with stress put me in the wonderful position to contract infectious mononucleosis and jaundice.
Mono is one of the diseases that is barely noticed these days, but when I contracted it in the middle of my junior year of high school, it meant four months of isolation (like Scarlett Fever, which is pretty much a routine sore throat now, but developed in to endocarditis and nearly killed me in the 1950’s). I remember that I slept nearly around the clock for the first couple of weeks, waking only when my dad came in to spoon feed me three square meals, and by that I mean lots and lots of meat. I was in no position to argue.
After I was feeling a bit better, I made arrangements with a girl from the neighborhood for her to get books from the library for me. I started reading everything the library had on every major religion in the world. I worked my way through them, one at a time, and when I had read every book in the local library, the neighbor girl asked her father to get more out of the library at the University of Chicago where he taught in the drama department. By the end of the summer, I was reasonably well-versed in the different aspects of religious thought and was beginning to form my own thoughts and feelings about what I believed to be true for me. I drew heavily on the Eastern spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. J. Krishnamurti was also a favorite for me to read; my interest in Theosophy had not waned. My experiences in the room with the Grandmothers and with the light people were making much more sense to me. I was learning that others had similar experiences. I felt supported as I read their words.
As the time approached for school to start again, I was informed that, because I had missed so much school the previous year, I would not be able to start my senior year. The Administration wanted me to sit out the first semester of the year and then re-start the second semester as a junior again, essentially picking up where I left off the previous year. The thought of having to spend a longer amount of time in the school, in the town, in the house, was horrifying. I struck a deal with the Principal: I would take all the final exams for my classes; if I passed, I passed; if I didn’t, I’d do it their way. I passed.
I began the school year and continued my home-based education as well. I continued to read as much as I could find on the workings of the human mind-emotion-spirit. I read about diet and learned how to cook for myself. I continued to practice meditation and found that the peace and freedom it gave me was better that what I had previously tried to find with alcohol. What I knew to be true about myself began to make sense in the larger picture of the Universe because it was substantiated by others. I kept journals of my dreams and of my thoughts; I wrote short stories of struggles, of hopes, and of successes. I came to a peaceful co-existence with my mother and loved the deep discussions I had with my father about the political upheaval of the day. I put my energies to good use and became an activist for the Grape Boycott and against the Vietnam War. I was a frontrunner in the Let Us Vote Campaign to lower the voting age to 18. The hallmark of my senior year was getting paid for having an editorial comment published in the Chicago Tribune. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t running away from my past, I was running toward my future.