The Divine Romance
June 15th, 2013
“Apprentice Village” in August, 1979, sat surrounded by a white rail fence on Tyler Foote Road at what has become Ananda’s entrance. A small farm house and converted garage hosted classes and meals for folks like me, young and eager the lot, attracted by two “Joy Tours” Swami and his merry band had made cross-continent, and Swami’s newly-released autobiography, The Path.
My parents, happy to have me back in California after years away, drove me up and helped pitch a tent on the meadow where the Expanding Light now stands.
“Be good,” Mom offered, before they drove off.
I had been pleasantly surprised at how quick they’d been to deliver me into the hands of what, at the time, could be seen as one more cult. After all, just the year before, 908 people in Jonestown had drunk the Kool-Aid and perished. What did my parents have to think Ananda might be different?
First, there was me. They had followed my journey onto the spiritual path with full support and watched me try this community, then that, at last meeting Swami and being invited to visit. They could hardly miss the present glow that had me engulfed, and my conviction I’d stumbled upon something big.
Then there were the people here, 20 or so, all very alike, while different; all, somehow, projecting an aura of goodness. Mom and Dad left reassured.
I understood the concern, though it was hardly warranted.
It was the Friday before Spiritual Renewal Week, Ananda’s main event, when Swami would give daily classes at the Meditation Retreat up the road, across a landscape laid bare by gold mining, and tucked high in the hills beneath manzanita and fir. From far and wide people came. Expectancy hung in the air.
Monday morning, Swami addressed the crowd overflowing the “Temple of Leaves.”
Where I’d seen Swami speak before was at another weeklong conference on communities, before a worldlier crowd that reeked importance. This was miles apart! This crowd, though similar in size, felt like family, and Swami spoke to them as such, off the cuff, much as he had to me at that other place, sitting around after. If I’d been drawn before, I was finding myself now sucked in, and happy to feel no contradiction to the growing sense that this and these people were perhaps my own.
As the week progressed and more individuals made my acquaintance, I was struck by how diverse and yet similar they were — and how intelligent! There were hippie types, doctor and lawyer types, farmer types, teacher types, ministers and monastics – every possible which way – yet something intangible united them, and included me, in a manner my other groups had not quite been able to do.
I am not easily swayed, nor am I a “joiner” by any stretch. I’ve lived my life happily on the edge of most herds and give due diligence before diving into anything, rarely head first. Curiously, I recognized this same quality in these apparent joiners — for the first time ever.
That was food for thought.
Keshava Taylor was Swami’s secretary, and my point of contact with Ananda. He greeted me with exceptional warmth. I wondered if he was like that with everyone (and later discovered he was), but nonetheless found in him a kindred spirit, born of ages. He would become my first and best Ananda friend, counselor, confidant.
Thursday after class, Keshava came up.
“Swami will see you at 2:00.”
I flinched. Friend though I felt Swami to be, somewhat in awe I still was, something 33+ years and many ups and downs would fail to fully relieve. If it made it any better, Swami once told me, it’s how he felt himself in Master’s presence.
The sun beat hot on Swami’s deck. At last the prior appointment emerged, and, taking a breath, I made my way inside the dome. There, with his back to me, sat Swami cross-legged on the floor.
“This is like waiting for the dentist!” I exclaimed in mock angst, grinning wide and kneeling before him.
Swami skipped a beat – as before, at that conference, when I’d bear-hugged him goodbye – then let rise the deep and hearty chuckle I would come to know so well over the years. I said how happy I was to be there, and how much at home I already felt. Swami smiled, reiterated his welcome, and with that I was basically out the door, feeling good.
Days at Apprentice Village began at the crack of dawn with yoga and meditation, followed by breakfast and a class with Shivani, a petite, curly-haired dynamo of a woman who doubled as my supervisor at Publications, which printed and sold Swami’s books. Many places across the 750-acre property needed help. Others of us worked in the garden, dairy, incense shop and market.
Prakash, tall and thin, cut a striking pose in Indian garb and a severe bun atop his head. He counseled us, one-on-one.
Weeks went by. Summer became fall. I was just beginning to wonder where I’d go once Apprentice Village closed for the season when Keshava, bless his heart, rode in on a white horse and rescued me.
Keshava lived at Ayodhya, a forest enclave with sweeping vistas on our land’s opposite edge. Swami had built there a magnificent dome, the future nucleus of Crystal Hermitage. A stone’s throw away, 10 or so monks, including Keshava, lived around a modest temple in trailers and huts. Perhaps I would like to join the monastery and go in with Keshava in building a “4-plex” addition to his trailer?
At the beginning of June, all I had known was that my life in Cincinnati was yielding to something new and great. Faith had propelled me; first to that Virginia conference where Swamiji and I had crossed paths, then to Ananda — and now next door to Swami himself! Shivani hired me full-time at “Pubble,” and my foot was officially in the door.
Suddenly I was surrounded by relative old-timers. Nitai was head monk; other brothers included Bharat, Dharmardas, Dayanand, Dr. Peter, Devarshi, Ray Noble and Nakin. A group of nuns, led by Seva, lived just up the hill; on Christmas morning, both groups were invited to Swami’s for breakfast, blintzes by Asha, and presents under the tree.
I may have only been on the edge of this inner circle, but the edge has always been my place to be, and I was especially grateful, in this case, to find myself there so quickly, and for no apparent reason. I tried my best to absorb the benefits of such satsang, and interact with Swami when possible.
My close proximity to Keshava helped. Soon I was his secretary, helping take up such slack as re-typing The Path page-by-page, as Swami edited, and running errands.
My stove downstairs is getting deep in ashes. I don’t suppose
it’s ever been emptied. As long as you have use for the ashes,
maybe Jack could empty it and take the ashes to the outhouse,
or wherever they’re needed. He could use a garbage bag,
I suppose, rather than cart several bucketfuls.
Or maybe he has access to a wheelbarrow.
When Marjorie Avery calls, please tell her that I’m leaving for
Europe in a few days and am too pressed for time to see her,
but that I am praying for her, and send her my love and best
wishes. But make it definite that I simply haven’t time to see
When Swami needed someone to restock his firewood, I took the job, only to inadvertently lock him out of the house.
As long as I’m home, there’s no need to lock the upstairs door.
But do check to make sure it’s firmly latched. Sometimes it
isn’t, and the wind blows it open in the middle of the night.
There really isn’t any need to latch the upstairs door, as long
as I’m not gone, in which case you probably would find the
house locked anyway. Just test the door to make sure it’s
firmly closed. Also, when I came in just now, I found you’d
left the downstairs door open. Moths were coming in.
I’m getting mice in my house. I wonder if Jack or someone
short could check the underneath, in that section where the
split level occurs.
Late last night I heard rodents scrambling around the wall of
my meditation room and this morning found 2 mice in the trap.
I think that it must be somehow in connection with the
meditation room – the ceiling of it, the wall of it, somehow.
Anyway, let’s check there, maybe tomorrow or Friday or some
day, Saturday, whatever: you can give it a try, would you?
Being “short” was my sole qualification for this task. Otherwise, I was all-thumbs when it came to such things.
Again, there is a mouse in the house. He is canny enough to avoid
going into the trap, which makes me wonder if he may have
been one that was here before and got back in after being
I heard the mouse come back in on Saturday night, after being
gone Friday. How far away did you take the trap before letting
the blighter out? And how did he get back in?
How do I know it’s the same one? Well, I don’t, of course, but
I have a suspicion. A raisin that I left out on Friday to see if the
mouse was gone remained untouched that night. Saturday night
it was eaten. And Saturday night, at about 10:30, I heard a very
purposeful scramble from my meditation room, as of a mouse
that knew exactly where it was headed. No darting hither and
yon, looking for an opening. You couldn’t find it, though you
searched carefully. This mouse couldn’t have gone more straight
to the mark if there had been signs posted all around saying,
“Not here. There!”
Playing piano was more my speed. Luckily, just as I arrived at Ayodhya, Swami began adding a recording studio to his house, and when done, I imported from Ohio a Steinway piano I’d found and refurbished.
The exact sequence of early ‘80s events has grown dim, but let me paint the general scene: Swami was doing a radio show. The studio meant less travel. He took up photography, embarking on a series of pilgrimages: Italy, Romania, the Holy Land – this month, Egypt; Hawaii, the next. From these came slide shows. Each needed music. I was there, and with a small group of others recorded soundtracks.
One day, between takes, I found myself with Swami alone.
“Jack, I’ve written a new song.”
He played “I Live Without Fear,” my favorite of all his musical works, next to “The Divine Romance.”
Of all Swami’s music, “The Divine Romance,” a sonata in three movements, is the only significant piece for piano.
“I’ve never liked the way anyone has played it,” Swami said, “professional musicians included.”
I was no exception.
Time and again, he showed me how.
“You’re used to playing dance music,” he said, suggesting the phrasing be freer. “Think of it like Mozart.”
As for feeling, it should be centered, not emotional. This was hard for me to grasp. Did not feeling, by definition, mean emotion?
In the fall of 1986, having not yet succeeded, I took an open-ended sabbatical to study the Suzuki Method of music teaching in Japan.
“Maybe it will give you a mission,” Swami said before I left.
14 years went by. One thing led to another. I graduated from the Suzuki school, took a job in Wisconsin, opened my own studio, and taught some 25,000 half-hour lessons, meanwhile spending many happy years with Kendon Huppert, the love of my life, who died of AIDS in 1998.
Ananda stayed with me throughout.
In the spring of 2000, Swami, who had been stationed in Assisi, began a run of annual visits home. I dropped what I was doing and boarded a plane. He greeted me in Palo Alto warmly, prodigal son no more.
Later that trip, he was at the Meditation Retreat, christening the new dining room.
“I’ve been working on the sonata,” I mentioned.
“I’m not doing anything right now,” he replied. “Would you like to come over?”
We met in the dome. Again, my phrasing was not exact, but I showed promise.
“We have a chance to record the definitive version,” Swamiji said, adding that one day, he was sure, I would succeed.
He put his index finger at the point between my eyebrows.
“Master bless you.”
The following spring, having recorded two CDs of popular songs, ragtime, jazz and classics, I rented a hall, hired an engineer and put together 40 minutes of Swami’s music alone, which I delivered in person.
Swami met me at the door.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said casually. “I invited a few friends to listen with us.”
Downstairs at his apartment were assembled some 30 folks, many familiar faces and a smattering of new ones, notably David Miller, a nice man who himself had done a solo piano album in response to the gaping hole long seen in Crystal Clarity’s catalogue. A mic stood next to Swami’s chair; a cord led to old-bud Agni seated cross-legged on the floor at the front of the room.
“I’ll make you a tape,” Agni smiled as I joined him, “so you don’t have to take notes.”
I carried that tape around for years before finally tossing it out, unwilling to relive what happened next.
“So slow!” Swami exclaimed as we began. “There’s no energy!” he said, a few seconds in. “You could drive a truck through that space!” he added at a contemplative pause. Proceeding thus to the bitter end in fits and starts, little remained to be said as I stood to leave.
“I haven’t given up on you,” Swami solemnly said.
He was right, you know. I hadn’t been happy with my playing either, but it was the best I could do at the time and represented for me an important step in returning to Ananda at last. I hadn’t expected final approval. Neither had I planned on failing so spectacularly, and before so many.
In 2004, I succeeded in moving lock, stock and barrel back to Ananda Village, and began a long re-entry and consolidation process in which music played little part. Finally, in 2011, I began practicing in earnest.
On the eve of Swami’s 85th birthday, I wrote him thus:
“I’ve been preparing the sonata to play at your birthday concert. Considering my checkered past, I hesitate calling it a ‘present,’ but it has been ten years now, and I’m happy with it. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and your birthday seems a fitting occasion to share it with you. Who knows, it may be my last chance.
“For decades this piece – and my inability to please you with it – has loomed over me, inextricably linked (in my mind) to my attunement with you (or lack thereof), and by extension with the spiritual path itself. Only two things have offered hope: your saying, when last we met, that you hadn’t given up on me, and your assurance, on another occasion, that I would one day succeed. I took the latter as a divine promise from He whose words unerringly come to pass.
“You used to say you didn’t like the way anyone played your sonata, and that is how I’ve come to feel myself: no one’s version satisfies me fully, including your own 1979 recording (which has become de riguer for anyone playing here). Don’t get me wrong! I love hearing you, and I’ve listened to it again and again. I’ve gotten a lot out of it. Is it exactly how I would play it myself? No, but then how could it be? Though we both are manifestations of the one ray, God sings a different song through each of us. Where you ritard (in the first phrase of the 2nd movement), I proceed. Where you proceed, I sometimes pause, like after each “Lord, I long to see Thee!” (You described these dalliances once as “large enough to drive a truck through,” but to me they are like the space between two kriyas. It would be unnatural for me not to observe them.) It’s not that ‘I just wanna be me!’ as the song goes. It’s that God has given me this voice, and what other can I use?
“You have largely taught me how to write. That doesn’t mean I copy you or mimic your style, consciously at least. Even if I could, I’d only end up being a bad version of you! Sort of like when singers imitate Sinatra: they may strike a chord, but ultimately their best efforts fall flat. They lack feeling.
“‘There should be feeling, of course, but it should be calmly centered – not emotional.’ This advice for the sonata confounded me for years, especially when my lower and higher selves were at all-out war with each other. Now that a sustained and verifiable truce has been in effect, it is easier for me to say with confidence: ‘Wait! I know my love for God is simple and true.’ Master is my best friend – and that is how you, Swami, have always been for me, free of compulsion or demand.
“When people play the sonata trying to follow the rules, it invariably – to my ears – comes off sounding hollow and, yes, contrived. But there is another aspect to it: with all due respect, your playing on that recording is, well, a bit ‘clunky.’ There’s a certain sameness in how you strike the keys, giving fairly equal weight to each beat. People imitate that, as well. Further, no one that I’ve ever heard plays the piece from memory. That might work for the first movement, but certainly not the second and third. People, therefore, have no choice but to focus on just getting through.
“I asked David if I could play the sonata at your birthday. He said yes, but I would have to adhere to the 1979 version, ‘because that’s the way Swami likes to hear it’ – and pass an audition as well. It’s not that I mind playing for him, but this piece and I are so close, I wouldn’t be able to meet those criteria even if I wanted to. The good news, though, is that finally I can relax: I know now, even if no one else does, that my broader attunement is no longer at stake.
“Obviously, I think it’s silly to insist that any piece of music be played one certain way. You used to speak of recording ‘the definitive version’ of the sonata, but how can a song with such personal lyrics as ‘Lord, I long to see Thee!’ not adapt to the person playing it?
“In 2002, at Derek Bell’s last visit here, Todd from Palo Alto played the sonata for you, somewhat idiosyncratically, as any performance is bound to be. You praised him at Sunday service the next day, adding: ‘And he made the piece his own!’
“‘Hey, wait a minute!’ I said to Nalini. ‘I don’t remember Swami ever telling me to make this piece ‘my own!’
“‘Maybe he’s holding you to a higher standard,’ she offered helpfully.
“In fact, however inconvenient, I am grateful for the standards to which I have been held. I asked for them, after all.”
I played the audition for Swami on his mom’s piano, where so often I’d played before, slightly nervous, but satisfied a vast improvement had been made.
“I can’t say there’s anything wrong with it,” Swami commented. “You missed some notes, but then you know that. You play it faster, but I can’t say it’s wrong. I can’t make you play it my way. I think it’s fine.”
Vindication at last.
“Can I play it at the concert?”
“I prefer Mukti’s version.”
Over the next couple days, those discouraging words had an unexpectedly liberating effect. I recalled the day not long ago when I gave up hope of hearing my mother advance beyond “I love you, but” on the subject of my being gay — and not being sad about that. Similarly I saw that all these years I’d been putting my self-respect on hold courting Swami’s approval, when perhaps I’d never needed to.
Still, approval would be nice.
Just before midnight this past Saturday, April 20, I was about to hit the hay when an “urgent” email from Savitri arrived:
“Swamiji passed away around 11:00 p.m.”
I stared at the screen for quite some time trying to comprehend.
I remembered Master making a point of telling Swami before he left:
“You’ve pleased me very much, Walter. I want you to know that.”
I’d never hear that now.
Next morning I was chopping lettuce in the Expanding Light kitchen as usual, when 10:30 rolled around and “Purification,” a brief ceremony we do in the temple. We offer our difficulties up to God and kneel before a minister, who engages our upper chakras as Master is asked to take charge of our lives.
While waiting for the minister’s touch, I always see Master looking into my eyes, His hands uplifted in prayer.
This time – to my astonishment – the moment the minister laid his hand on my chest, a window in my mind slid open, and there was Swami – a younger version, in orange robes – smiling, and blessing me! My body began to quake as tears welled up. I stumbled to the altar and out the door stunned, and looked at those around me in disbelief.
The coffin came and was placed in the dome.
I called Lalita.
“I want to play the sonata for him one last time.”
The hermitage was being reserved for those who wished to meditate with Swami, she said, but if I came on Friday morning at 10 o’clock sharp, I could play for Swami before others arrived.
I put on my best shirt.
At 9:45, I parked in the upper lot, no other cars in sight, and leisurely strolled down the snap-dragon-lined path and through the ivy-covered gift-shop gate, statues of Buddha, Divine Mother and all the gurus greeting me. Savoring each step, I proceeded past the pond and chapel, recalling a time when none of this was there, and former iterations of myself had made this exact same trip.
I paused beneath the arbor, slowly swung open the last garden gate, and made my final descent down stone steps to the rock wall Bram had decades ago built.
A pair of sandals sat neatly by the door.
I tiptoed in the empty entrance and slowly maneuvered inside the dome.
Could anyone not be awed by its sweep?
Serenity filled it. Mid-morning sun filtered down onto an altar, then the coffin itself, surrounded by flowers and photos. Chairs were set in rows; a dark-skinned man in yellow sat in front.
What to do?
I looked for Lalita, then took a seat against the wall, closing my eyes.
“Swami, I love you!”
I listened a while, then looked for Lalita, this time finding her.
“He looks so deep!” she said of the man. “Disturbing him might be bad karma.”
I suggested the music might add to his experience, so Lalita crept before him and made a couple discreet gestures to determine his level of consciousness.
“He’s so deep!” she whispered. “Why don’t you meditate a few minutes, then just very softly begin playing…”
Silently I lifted the piano lid, pulled back the bench and asked Master to flow.
Intent on rising to this new occasion, ever-so-gently I caressed the first few notes, then watched in wonder as the sweetest, most ethereal “Divine Romance” I had ever heard began wafting through the room. The man did not stir. Indeed, with each succeeding phrase, he and I both became more motionless, bathed in ripples of blessing, it seemed, from Swamiji himself.
When the last note sounded, I sat dumbfounded and grateful. I had no memory of what had just happened – nor any hope of replicating it – but Swami was pleased, I knew.
Lalita was nowhere in sight.
A puffy cloud carried me to my car and out Sages Road.