Joy has always been my first love. I have longed to share it with others.
My clearest early memories all relate to a special kind of happiness, one that seemed to have little to do with the things around me, that at best was only reflected in them. A lingering impression is one of wonder to be in this world at all. What was I doing here? Intuitively I felt that there must be some higher reality — another world, perhaps, radiant, beautiful, harmonious, in relation to which this earthly plane represented mere exile. Beautiful sounds and colors thrilled me almost to ecstasy. Sometimes I would cover a table down to the floor with a colorful American Indian blanket, then crawl inside and fairly drink in the luminous colors. At other times, gazing into the prism formed by the broad edge of a mirror on my mother’s dressing table, I would imagine myself living in a world of rainbow-colored lights. Often also, at night, I would see myself absorbed in a radiant inner light, and my consciousness would expand beyond the limits of my body.
“You were eager for knowledge,” Mother told me, “not a little willful, but keenly sympathetic to the misfortunes of others.” Smiling playfully, she added, “I used to read children’s books to you. If the hero was in trouble, I would point pityingly to his picture. When I did so, your lips quivered. ‘Poor this!’ you exclaimed.” Mother (naughty this!) found my response so amusing that she sometimes played on it by pointing tragically to the cheerful pictures as well — a miserable ploy which, she informs me, invariably succeeded.
As I grew older, my inner joy spilled over into an intense enthusiasm for life. Teleajen gave us many opportunities to be creative in our play. We were far removed from the modern world of frequent movies, circuses, and other contrived amusements. Television was, of course, unknown at that time even in America. As a community composed mostly of English and American families, we were remote even from the mainstream of Rumanian culture. Our parents taught us a few standard Anglo-American games, but for the most part we invented our own.
Our backyard became transformed into adventure lands. A long stepladder laid sideways on the snow became an airplane soaring us to warmer climes. A large apple tree with hanging branches served a variety of useful functions: a schoolhouse, a sea-going schooner, a castle. Furniture piled high in various ways in the nursery would become a Spanish galleon, or a mountain fortress. We blazed secret trails through a nearby cornfield to a cache of buried treasure, or to a point of safety from the pursuing officers of some unspeakably wicked tyrant. In winter, skating on a tennis court that had been flooded to make an ice rink, we gazed below us into the frozen depths and imagined ourselves moving freely in another dimension of wonderful shapes and colors.
I remember a ship, too, that I set out to build, fully intending to sail it on Lake Snagov. I got as far as nailing a few old boards together in nondescript imitation of a deck. In imagination, however, as I lay in bed at night and contemplated the job, I was already sailing my schooner on the high seas.
Leadership came naturally to me, though I was unwilling to exert it if others didn’t spontaneously share my interests. The children in Teleajen did share them, and enthusiastically embraced my ideas. More and more, however, as I grew older, I discovered that many people considered my view of things somewhat peculiar.
I noticed it first in some of the newly arrived children in Teleajen. Accustomed as they were to the standard childhood games of England and America, they would look puzzled at my proposals for more imaginative entertainment — like the time we gazed into unfamiliar dimensions in the ice while skating over it. Unwilling to impose my interests on them, I was equally unwilling to accept their imposition in return. I was, I suppose, eccentric, not from any conscious desire or intent, but from a certain inability to attune myself to others’ norms. What was important to me seemed to them unimportant, whereas, frequently, what they considered important seemed to me incomprehensible.
Miss Barbara Henson (later, Mrs. Elsdale), our governess for a time, described me years later in a letter the way she remembered me as a child of seven: “You were certainly ‘different,’ Don—‘in the family but not of it.’ I was always conscious that you had a mystic quality which set you apart, and others were aware of it, too. You were always the observer, with an extraordinarily straight look in those blue-grey eyes which made you, in a sense, ageless. And in a quiet, disconcerting way, you made funny little experiments on other people as if to satisfy your suspicions about something concerning them. Never to be put off by prevarication or half-truths, you were, one felt, seeking the truth behind everything.”
Mildred Perrot, the wife of our Anglican minister in Ploesti at the time, once told me, “I can go through a keyhole.”
“You can?” I exclaimed. From then on I kept pestering her to perform this miracle, until finally she relented. Writing the letter i on a small piece of paper, she folded it up and shoved it through a keyhole! I still remember my disappointment, for I wanted miracles to belong in the realm of the possible.
Cora Brazier, our next-door neighbor, a kind, sympathetic Rumanian lady, once remarked to Miss Henson, “I always try to be especially nice to Don, because he’s not like the others. I believe he knows this, and is lonely.”
Although this knowledge was not to dawn on me fully until after I left Teleajen, there was even then a certain sense of being alone. It was held in abeyance, however, by the presence of good friends, and by a harmonious home life.
My parents loved us children deeply. Their love for each other, too, was exemplary and a strong source of emotional security for us. Never in my life did I know them to quarrel, or to have even the slightest falling out.
My father was especially wonderful with children. Rather reserved by nature, he yet possessed a simple kindness and a sense of humor that enabled him to appreciate young minds. At bedtime he would invent hilarious stories for us that were continued night after night, frequently with additions from his enthusiastic listeners. Then, as my brothers and I were ready to fall asleep, he would arrange us at one end of the bed or the other depending on whether we said we wanted to travel in sleep to Australia, America, or to some other distant land.
He taught us much, by example as well as words. Above all what we learned from him came from observing in him a nature always humble, honest, truthful, honorable, kind, and scrupulously fair. I would go so far as to call him, in his quiet, rather reserved way, a great man.
But in my own relationship with him there was always a certain sadness. I could not be to him the kind of mirror a man naturally hopes for in his sons, especially his first-born. I tried earnestly to share his interests, but where he was attracted to the “hows” of things, I was attracted to the “whys.” He was a scientist, and I, instinctively, a mystic and philosopher. He tried to interest me in the way things worked. (I still remember one dusty expedition under the house, where he showed us boys what made the front doorbell ring. I at least tried to feel grateful!) But I was only interested in what things meant. My inability to communicate with him on those subjects which most deeply interested each of us was the first indication I had that his world — which I considered, by extension, the normal world — could never truly be mine.
Mother and I understood one another intuitively; ours was a communication of souls, less so one of speech. Though she never spoke of praying for us children, I know that her prayers and love for me were my greatest blessing during the formative years of my life.
Rumania was still a feudal land. Its people, gifted artistically, tended otherwise to be somewhat inefficient and unhurried. The country was an anachronism in the busy twentieth century. Its workmen could spend fifteen years with picks and shovels digging a tunnel under the railway tracks at the main station in the capital. One summer, eager to follow the example of the rest of the modern world, the whole nation, by official mistake, went on Daylight Losing Time! Drivers’ tests included such penetrating questions as “What goes on the front of a car?” (Headlights, naturally.) Years later, Indra Devi, the well-known yoga teacher,(1) told me that while traveling by train through Rumania she had once been asked by the conductor what she was doing in a second-class compartment.
“Why, can’t you see? I have a second-class ticket!”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter in Rumania! Please, just go sit in first class where everyone else is.”
Inattention, however, to the petty details of modern commerce and efficiency seemed somehow appropriate in a land that inspired thoughts of music and poetry. Rumania was one of the most fascinatingly beautiful countries I have ever seen: a land of fertile plains and soaring mountains; of colorfully clad peasants and musically gifted gypsies; of hay carts on the highways vying with automobiles for the right of way; of giggling, naked children; of gay songs and laughter. Frequently, outside our colony in the evenings, we would hear bands of gypsies conversing, singing, or playing the violin: the sad, haunting melodies of a people forever outcast from their true home, in India.
These gypsies were my first contact with the subtly subjective moods of the Orient — moods that, I was to learn, are reflected in many aspects of life in Rumania. For centuries Rumania had been under Turkish rule. Now a proud and upcoming Western nation, there still clung to her something of the aura of the mystical East.
Rumania was a kingdom. King Carol II had his summer home about sixty kilometers (forty miles) northwest of us, in Sinaia, a lovely hill station in the Transylvanian Alps. Though I never saw him there, we, too, spent many vacations in Sinaia, and in other quaint towns and villages nearby: Busteni, Predeal, Timis, Brasov. In winter we often skied; in summer we hiked, or waded and swam in friendly, chuckling brooks, or played in fragrant meadows. Many times these mountain trips were taken because of my health, which was precarious. I was skinny as a pencil, and forever coming down with a variety of obscure ailments. Timis was my favorite spot. There we always stayed at a guest lodge run by a German lady, Frau Weidi, whose husband kept bees that produced the best honey I have ever tasted.
Sixty kilometers to the south of Teleajen was Bucharest, Rumania’s capital: a clean, modern city that rose like a prophetic dream in the mind of a nation still asleep in the Middle Ages. Ploesti remained, however, for the first nine years of my life, the Big City: a not-very-attractive jumble of dirty streets and uninteresting houses. My recollections of it are few: visits to Ghiculescu, the grocer; Sunday services at the Anglican church; and very occasional outings to the movies — Walt Disney cartoons, mostly, and comedies featuring Laurel and Hardy, whom the Rumanians had renamed fondly, Stan and Bran (Stan si Bran).
The church served as a focus for Mother’s piety. In this area of her life Dad played the role of disinterested spectator. Though he respected Mother’s religious inclinations, and went with her to church more or less regularly, I never observed that liturgy held any attraction for him. His own natural concept of reality was more abstract. Nothing, I think, so inspired him as the contemplation of vast eons of geologic time. The thought of a God sitting somewhere on a heavenly throne, bestowing favors on special groups of worshipers, struck him, I suspect, as faintly barbaric.
My own natural bent lay somewhere between these two: the pious and the abstract. Like Dad, I was not greatly attracted to the church worship services. The hymns seemed to me rather dull and sad. The minister I considered a good man, but certainly not an inspired or inspiring one. I suppose I accepted the rituals as good things to do; beyond this pale recognition, however, they held little meaning for me. I wish I could report that the life of Jesus, at least, made a strong impression on me. I am moved by it now. But then it reached me through a barricade of wooden traditionalism, robbed of immediacy. I’m sure I couldn’t have defined my feelings at the time, but I think what I missed most of all in our church services were love and joy. Mother had these qualities. What impressed and touched me about her was not religion as she defined it, but as she lived it.
Like Dad, I found it difficult to believe in a God who loved each human being personally. That God was impersonal seemed to me self-evident, when I considered the vastness of the universe. How, then, I thought, could He be interested enough to listen to us mortals when we prayed to Him? It was only many years later, in the teachings of India, that I found reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible concepts of a God both personal and impersonal. For the Infinite Spirit, as my Guru was to explain with perfect simplicity and clarity, though impersonal in its vastness, has become personal also in creating us individual beings. Infinity, in other words, implies infinitesimal smallness as well as infinite immensity.
Though I found it difficult to address God personally, I always felt that reality must be spiritual, that it must have some high meaning and purpose. I remember a discussion I had once with Dad. I was about six years old at the time; we were standing on the terrace of our Teleajen home, watching the birds twitteringly at play in the large apple tree.
“In the hundreds of millions of years,” Dad said, “since the world was created, every species has had its turn at being the master of this planet, except the birds. First there were the fishes, then the insects, then the reptiles, and now man, representing the mammals. Perhaps, millions of years from now, man, too, will be pushed aside, and the birds will get their turn at being the earth’s masters.”
How appealing I found this picture of vast reaches of time! But then a doubt occurred to me: Is there no meaning to it all? Is life nothing but a process of endless variety, with different species ruling for no better reason than that their turn has come? Surely there must be some higher purpose — hidden, perhaps, but divine.
My questioning mind must have made me something of a trial to my parents. Mother, on a visit to Italy in 1933, wrote to Miss Henson: “Please tell the boys that I want them to try to be very good and that will help both them and me to have a good time. (Donald is sure to find a flaw in that argument, but you might try it!)”
Fortunately for me, Mother and Dad never discouraged my questioning. I remember one day, at the age of five, standing in the bathroom, watching Dad shave. I was pondering one of the deep mysteries of childhood: How can Santa Claus reach every home on earth in a single night? Suddenly the answer dawned on me.
“Daddy, there isn’t really a Santa Claus, is there?”
Dad, too honest to insist that there is, but too considerate of the sweet myths of childhood to admit that there isn’t, hedged his reply. I understood him perfectly. Then and there I decided that it would really be much more fun to go on believing in Santa Claus anyway. In that spirit I believe in him still.
Myths are an important part of life. Paradoxical as it seems, they are important to man’s search for truth as well, for they help to give his mind the elasticity it needs to imagine new solutions to old problems.
Myths (in fact!) formed a large part of my education. I loved Greek mythology, the adventures of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, the legends of Robin Hood and Peter Pan, Grimm’s fairy tales, stories from the Old Testament — myths, all, in which goodness, courage, and honor win in the end. One’s life experiences may not always endorse these moral preachments, but wise men and women have ever insisted that justice does prevail eventually, even if the time of reckoning stretches to distant horizons. “Yato dharma, tato jaya,” proclaim the Indian scriptures: “Where there is righteousness, there is victory.” Fact may well, as people claim, be stranger than fiction, but fiction is very often, in a deeper sense, truer than fact. I think it a pity that the ancient myths are not given more emphasis in modern education. Certainly they enriched my own upbringing.
But then, the culture of Rumania was more conducive to legend-telling than that of pragmatic America. As children, my brothers and I got periodic opportunities to compare these two countries. Every three or four years Dad received a three-months’ vacation, all expenses paid, in America. My first journey was when I was six months old, then three years, seven, ten, and thirteen. It was after I turned thirteen that we settled here.
I still recall my amazement, at the age of three, on arriving in London to find waiters, taxi drivers, the man in the street — all speaking English! I’d supposed English was spoken only by parents and their friends. Nurses, of course, spoke German. But wasn’t it a law of life that practically everyone else spoke Rumanian? I suppose by so compartmentalizing these languages I managed to keep from confusing them — a further example, perhaps, of the value of the myth-making process. Once Mother addressed me in Rumanian, and I replied to her in shocked tones, “Mother, don’t talk to me like that!”
Looking at America with a mentality that was partly Rumanian, I received insights that sometimes conflicted with my pride in being an American. I deeply loved America. I admired its dynamic energy, and stood almost in awe of its constant emphasis on common sense: The Americans I met seemed to know exactly what to do in every situation. I loved them, too, for their kindness — whenever they took the time from constant, driving activity to be kind. But on the other hand, I found myself puzzled by what often struck me in their conversation as “big talk.” I’d noticed it in a few of the Americans in Teleajen, especially in the newcomers. In America even the children, it seemed, were always trying to show how grown-up they were, how sophisticated, how important. It was as though they had no patience with childhood. What, I wondered, was all that important about being important?
Compared to America, Rumania is a little country. Though independent in spirit, its people have a less exalted self-image. Americans, with their four million territorial square miles (the U.S. is the third largest country in the world, after Russia and Canada), fall more easily into the thought of self-importance, a temptation which seems to accompany bigness whether in nations, institutions, or individuals.
Vacations in America entailed visits to our various relatives. My earliest memories include Mother Ella, my maternal grandmother, who died while I was still young. I remember best her sweet smile, so loving it seemed almost saintly. My paternal grandparents, who lived longer, were simple, good people also. It was in these relatives, and in many other people like them, that I caught my first glimpse of the special spiritual genius of America: childlike innocence and simplicity, a predisposition to see goodness in others, a love of freedom tempered by a desire to live in harmony with man and God.
Granddad introduced me also to another American trait: the tendency to dignify inconsequential matters by humorously pretending that serious issues were at stake. It is a trait that can, and sometimes does, lead to misunderstandings.
Once in Tulsa Dad paid a minor traffic fine. Granddad remarked straight-facedly to me afterwards, “Well, I guess your Dad escaped prison this time.” I took him literally. Several days later our family was eating in a crowded restaurant. As sometimes happens in a crowd, there occurred a brief interlude when, without apparent reason, everyone in the room stopped talking –everyone, that is, but young Donald. Heedlessly, I chose that moment to pipe up in a loud voice:
“Daddy! Tell us about the time you escaped from prison!”
There ensued a still-more-silent hush of shock. Then, suddenly, everyone was laughing. (Why, I wondered, was Dad blushing so furiously? It seemed to me such a brave thing for him to have done.)
Trips to and from America must have been something of an ordeal for our poor parents. We were three brothers. Dick, the youngest, wasn’t old enough to engage in much fraternal rivalry, but Bob and I were close to the same age, and when we weren’t cooperating in some misadventure (like the time we upset a traveling prince and his retinue by scrambling their shoes, left overnight in the corridor to be shined), we often wrestled each other to work off excess energy.
Bob was born a year and a half after me, but soon grew to my height, and occasionally surpassed it. He felt little hesitancy in challenging a seniority which I had no intention of relinquishing. Temperamental differences existed between us, too. Bob was impulsive, outgoing, fond of popularity, demonstrative of his feelings. I was in many ways quite the opposite: reserved, pensive, forever questioning. Bob once picked up a caterpillar from a path with the loving cry, “There, there, you poor little worm! I’ll put you over here so no one can step on you.” He then ran off gaily, quite forgetting the incident. Had I helped the same caterpillar, I would have pondered the incident for days, wondering what it was that made certain creatures defenseless, and why this particular insect, out of millions, should have received help.
Beside Bob I’m afraid I sometimes felt myself rather a lump. As a matter of fact, that thought sometimes seemed to bother him, too. His spirit of rivalry was, I think, rooted partly in unconscious disapproval of me for not being more like others. But for all that we managed to be good friends. And always, where the rest of the world was concerned, we stood together in brotherly solidarity, never more so than when either of us was being threatened.
Fighting is, I suppose, inextricably a part of the process of growing up, particularly so for boys. I recall what might be considered my fair share of boyhood scraps, though I don’t remember ever instigating one. (In this respect I was unlike my cousin Ed, who made full, aggressive use of nature’s gift to him of a strong body. “Eddy,” his mother once admonished him, “don’t you know that when another boy hits you, you shouldn’t hit back?” “Oh, but Mother,” Ed remonstrated self-righteously, “I never hit back. I always hit first!”)
Though I myself never “hit first,” if ever it seemed important to me to demonstrate to others, or to myself, that I was no coward I was not one to turn the other cheek. Several fights, in fact, far from stirring me now to repentance, stand out in memory as having helped me to learn worthwhile lessons.
It was because of a fight that I first learned something of the fickleness of human loyalties. I was seven or eight at the time. Alvin, a big boy who was visiting Teleajen with his parents, determined to impose his command on our group. Brawn, fortunately, was not important to our “group dynamics.” I knew that the support I had from my friends was born of mutual affection, not of fear. But when Alvin challenged me, his victory seemed so much a foregone conclusion that most of the children, fearing later retribution, sided with him. Bob was the sole exception. I was indignant at the rest of them for their fickleness, and determined to teach them a good lesson by beating Alvin.
It was a long, somewhat bloody battle. Every shout for Alvin only goaded me to renewed efforts. Gradually his strength flagged. As it began to look as if I might win after all, first one of the children, then another, joined Bob in rooting for me. At last Alvin’s courage crumbled altogether. By this time everyone was enthusiastically on my side.
Victory was bittersweet for me that day, however. I knew my friends had really wanted me to win all along. But I also understood a little bit of what an unreliable thing is the support of one’s fellow creatures.
Wise indeed is he who discovers that God’s friendship alone can never fail him.
Disappointment, however, is a good teacher; it helps us to take our first, faltering steps out of childhood toward maturity. For the world is frequently at odds with our desires. The sign of maturity is a willingness to adjust to realities broader than one’s own. It is how we react to disappointment that determines whether our development will be a shrinking inward towards bitterness and cynicism, or an expansion outward towards acceptance and wisdom.
Author of Forever Young, Forever Healthy and other books.
Back to text