The summer I turned 24, life fell apart. I lost one job, and my closest friendship crashed and burned. My parents didn’t understand me, and I considered giving up on them, as well.
“Wait,” I thought. “Have you tried explaining yourself? It would be dumb to give up without having done your part. Besides, if you took the time, there’s no way they could not agree with you!” I fed the typewriter some paper and began the first 20-paged installment of an autobiography, the general theme of which was what was wrong with me and why Mom and Dad were to blame.
My writing was brilliant, with no stone unturned. Mailing off Chapter One, I sat back to wait for the inevitable confession to arrive. Two weeks later, it did:
“We love you,” my mother wrote. “Your letter was difficult to read, and what you’re going through is not easy, but we feel you should keep writing.” Enclosed was a check towards rent.
Clearly, I had not expressed myself fully. Redoubling my efforts, I proceeded with 20 pages more. “That’s it!” I exclaimed at last. “They can’t possibly deny me now!” Eagerly, I returned to my chair.
“We love you,” Mom wrote again. “It’s not healthy keeping these feelings bottled up. You must keep writing.” Enclosed was another check.
Lest you think me ungrateful, I did appreciate the support, but this was not what I wanted to hear! Was “we’re sorry” too much to ask? Apparently I wasn’t the writer I had thought. Chapter Three was longer and more explicit, and the “we love you,” when it came, more exasperating still, yet all it did was confirm that my case had not sufficiently been made.
The back-and-forth went on for a year — and 500 pages — until what I had to say had been said as well as humanly possible, several times over.
“We love you,” the letter came.
Something inside me cracked.
I was never going to get what I wanted, and there was nothing more I could do! No feelings were left to explore — and excavating them endlessly was keeping me bound to a painful past. It had to stop.
There was some consolation. Whether they would admit it, I knew I had succeeded in making my parents complicit in the travesty called “Jack.” At the same time, I realized their intentions had been good. However imperfectly, they had done their best. The clincher, though, was this: even if everything I had said were true, it didn’t make being the me of that moment any easier. Who I was going to be was something only I could decide — and yet that was something I could definitely do!
Thus I took my first step onto the spiritual path.
Life did an instant reverse turn. Where I had been reclusive, I consciously put myself before people: cashiering at the food co-op, playing piano at a restaurant downtown, modeling for art classes; putting myself out there, literally and figuratively, confronting fear head-on. Unproductive indulgences fell away. Possessions pared down. Great weight lifted.
In the quest for what life should be, only books about Spirit held interest. Autobiography of a Yogi was one among many, yet the cover photograph refused to let me go; from page one, I was hooked. I joined a new-age group, followers of mystic Paul Solomon, who was breaking ground on a community in Virginia. After two weeks there, a friend and I hitchhiked to The Farm, a then-hippie commune in Tennessee. Though not quite mine, it was astounding to see an army of young people actively forging a brave new world.
I didn’t know what, but something big was rendering my life in Cincinnati obsolete. Boxing up my stuff, I moved out of my apartment and took a summer job at a camp in Connecticut. Wherever I would go from there, it would certainly not be back.
In the midst of moving, the phone rang. It was the director of the Solomon community, urging me to attend a week-long “grand opening,” the likes of which Buckminster Fuller and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would host.
“I know you’re broke, but you should come. Room and board would be free, if you can help.”
Among the list of speakers, a Swami Kriyananda stood out: “…disciple of Yogananda…founder of Ananda Village…” That sealed the deal, and I showed up early to plow fields, put up tents, and plenty of other such. Being part of something noble and larger than myself was thrilling, and the escalating hoopla exceeded anything I could have imagined.
Very Important People arrived, entourages in tow. Paul Solomon himself kicked off the week. It was the first I’d seen him. As the kind of leader who hid behind closed doors, he was a dignitary equal to any of our guests. The week proceeded, one vital topic and expert after another, until finally Swami got up.
He probably talked about communities. No doubt he mentioned the “terrible cataclysm” Yogananda said was coming. All I remember is how he said whatever it was, like one friend to another. His autobiography, The Path, was for sale, but I didn’t feel him trying to sell me anything. “Important,” though he surely was, he was willing to be my equal at the same time, and that was refreshing!
One night, Swami took his fellow teachers out to dinner:
“This conference was on communities,” he has famously said, “yet of those present, I alone had actually started one. Nevertheless, and despite my being the host, they spent the entire evening chatting each other up. Never have I been so blissfully content to feel so utterly un-important.”
There’s a picture of the two of us sitting on the lawn after class. The grin on my face belies the joy I felt in having crossed paths, unexpectedly, with what seemed to be my own. I bought The Path, and promised I would not devour it, as I had Yogananda’s book.
At week’s end, the speakers formed a long line we traversed, saying farewell. I’ll never forget the way Elisabeth Kübler-Ross peered into my eyes. Swami jumped when I threw my arms around him, but he hugged back, and I left for home feeling something special had taken place.
Boy, was I glad I had gone.
My last week in Cincinnati was an odd mix of sadness and expectancy – odd, because what was I looking forward to? I had nothing – and, in 8 short weeks, nowhere to go! Yet something great was unmistakably happening in my life, and all I had to do, I felt, was keep responding to the “still, small voice” within.
Camp was a trip. This, it turned out, was where the east coast elite dropped their young before jetting cross-continent. Our mountain abode boasted every activity, archery to indian lore. Counselors had been chosen for talent, thus I played piano for “Oliver,” a show heavy on boys, our major resource.
We lodged in barracks, 12 kids/2 counselors, and followed a daily regimen of recreation and meals — superb, by the way, with bread and pastry oven-fresh. There were free periods and days off; otherwise, we supervised something or other 24/7.
In my in-between time, I opened The Path.
Had I not met Swami – nor loved Autobiography of a Yogi — I might have been put off by its heft or battle-weary cover shot. But I had. And the friendly voice I recalled carried me without effort through what could have been my own story.
I was amazed to find Swami had gone to school in Villars, a tiny village high in the Swiss Alps. I, myself, had worked in Villars one winter at a ski resort! Then I found Swami had attended middle school in Kent, Connecticut, minutes from me at that moment!
Was I trailing him?
More importantly, had it been me picking up Yogananda’s book in 1948, would I have gotten on the next bus? I was fascinated to see what might have happened if so — and the events that led to what now was a living, breathing community in California, my home state!
Was this possibly for me?
Dear Swami, I’ve just finished your book. I’d like to come see what Ananda’s about, but I have one question: I need help – obviously — yet it’s my capacity for reason that’s brought me this far. I don’t think God wants me to give that up. How do I reconcile that with putting my life in the hands of a teacher?
Four weeks into camp was “Family Day.” Limousines and luxury vehicles of every make and model turned our playing field to parking lot. As if compensating for neglect, an avalanche of candy buried our bunks in an anything-goes free-for-all. Then, as with any artificial high, we slowly returned to real life — and found ourselves on a downward slope to the end of camp.
I started to worry.
Four weeks left, then three. What was I going to do?
They put the envelope on my pillow.
Dear Friend, thank you for your sweet letter. Yes, I feel from your sincerity and eagerness that you are indeed ready for these teachings. I suggest coming at Spiritual Renewal Week. We’ll be able to talk then.
It is true that everything we seek is within us, but we need to unlock that door. If one needs the guidance of a teacher for the simple practice of driving a car, how much more so for seeking the divine? Like with learning how to drive, once the goal is reached, there is no longer any need for the teacher.
In divine friendship,
I planned to hitchhike, but my father, elated at having me back, paid for the plane. After a brief stay in Modesto, Mom and Dad drove me to “Apprentice Village” and pitched my tent near what is now The Expanding Light.
I was home, though I didn’t yet know it.
Jack, this is great! I love reading about your life since high school. You came to the Ananda Village just a year after I joined the convent. So interesting how our lives were running parallel in many ways. Keep writing! Sr. Helena Marie (Helen)
Thanks, Helen. Stay tuned for Part 2: “That ‘Cult’ is My Family!”
Congrats on your first blog post, Jack! I enjoyed it a lot.
Nice blog, Jack ~ thanks for sharing.
great bio sir, isin’t the spiritual path wonderful?
Thanks, Jack–wonderful stuff! :)
Enjoyed reading your story & hearing another viewpoint on the Virginia gathering of “important people” that Swami has talked about. SRW 1979 was the 1st one I attended as well.
Beautiful, Jack! Write more!
So nice to see this, Jack. I loved reading about you being at that weekend with Swamiji, and your mother’s responses to your long letters (chapters!).
What a wonderful story, Jack! Your mother said it all, “You should keep writing!”
That’s a great story: must be the name [ha ha]. Seriously, that was fun & interesting. I enjoyed seeing the word “limousines” in a spiritual blog post.
And you’re still playing the piano, 3 decades later…
It was very enjoyable reading your story. The divine hand guiding your life was remarkable. Your journey to Ananda was simply great.