Wandering led me on a few memorable adventures, even if all it did was buy me time and help me to figure out that I am not an ideologue, a recruiter, or someone who wants to change my name as the marker of a spiritual transformation. (The biggest change I have made on that last point is signing emails to students as “Professor Ess,” partly as an ironic takedown of my own authority, and letting friends call me “Em,” because it’s the first letter of my name—the same way your dad used to call you “Zee”).
Yours truly lived in a teepee on a commune; there, I made sauerkraut in a clawfoot bathtub and rolled ceramic beads to supplement the in-kind income (room and board) I earned by chopping down trees and providing childcare. I was 19 and—in a phrase made defunct by “new ageism,” exploring “alternative lifestyles” before yoga, veganism, and sustainability had become cultural watchwords. If I had a photograph from that time—and I don’t, because for years I didn’t allow my photograph to be taken—you would see a round-faced teenager who looks a lot younger than almost twenty, clothed in baggy overalls and Timberland boots, with a big floppy hat atop long brown hair.
The boots are still cool. Everything else, just no.
But before I arrived at the commune, I did hitchhike and made the quintessential rookie move of letting the driver take me to a remote location that he alone knew. I asked the trucker who picked me up where I could pitch a tent for the night, and he drove me up a dirt mountain road to a small pond behind a burned-out farmhouse. There were no other houses, no other human beings. Still, I pitched my tent and made my dinner, then went to sleep.
The sound of a truck engine and breaking glass woke me at probably at three or four in the morning. I heard footsteps, then smelled tobacco smoke from the man I knew was standing a couple of feet from my tent. Was he the truck driver? Who else could he have been? I was in the boonies. Certain that I would be raped and killed, I took out my journal and wrote my last words, that I loved my family and didn’t want to die. Then I waited. How long he stood there, I don’t know, just that eventually, for whatever reason, he walked away, got in his truck, and drove off. But I shook uncontrollably for hours, particularly after emerging from the tent to see large footprints and a cigarette stub in the dirt within arm’s reach of my tent.
Shadows, and whatever is the antithesis of shadows. How can I explain my emerging unharmed?
I strapped on my frame pack and hiked to the Abode of the Message—the commune—where I settled into a dorm-style guest house. Then I was assigned chores: fetching wood, childcare, and working with the kitchen staff, who rotated meal preparation responsibilities. There I got my first experience of what I would now call mansplaining in the form of a white-blond yoga bum in mauve linens who poopooed the input of his female crew. Maybe that’s when I perfected my furtive eye-roll; naïve as I was, I knew he was a pompous fart.
My favorite job was childcare. I loved having a crew of toddlers climbing all over me as I read stories in a pretend-wolf or piggy voice. I suppose that playing with those trusting kids gave me back something of my lost childhood, the same way—over twenty years later—being your mother did.
(Wow, I would never have imagined, at the age of eighteen, that it would be two more decades before I became a mom. I always knew I had wanted children; it seemed inevitable.)
At the Abode, I met a young brown-skinned man named Ariel who was even more screwed up than I was; he was too skinny for his near-constant fasting, and listening to him talk about a horrid childhood, I realized that the Abode was an escape. Oddly, I urged him to leave and get psychiatric help, even though I wouldn’t have taken that same advice.
I stayed for three months, during which time I got a case of bronchitis from sleeping in damp unheated buildings and having insufficient clothing for the cooler months. When I got better, the administrative people told me I had to commit to joining the community or leave. Joining meant that I would become a devotee of Pir Vilayat Khan, whose followers repeated this prayer daily:
Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony and Beauty,
the Only Being,
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master,
the Spirit of Guidance.
I love traditional prayers, particularly the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm—the Psalm of David—which I think of as a prayer because it asks God to walk with us. And I love the Doxology, which you have never in your life sung, because you didn’t attend church. It has a similar kind of message:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Yes, it’s got the patriarchal language of the father in there; it’s got the male holy trinity. But I can still faithfully sing it because of its ascendant melody, and because if I think of it simply as a song praising God the creator, it’s inoffensive. Plus, I grew up with it; I sang it every Sunday as the offering plate circulated in church. It’s more familiar to me than the grace we said over Nanna’s dinner table, which was something about gratitude for the bounty of God’s blessing. Liturgical music and recitations have always been an anchor-point, probably because—recited or sung in unison—they valorize belonging. They stitch people together in the shared expression of hope. For me, prayers and songs opened the door to my heart, and I frequently wept in church. But the prayer of Pir Vilayat Khan did not do that for me. It lacked the majesty and grounding in collective memory that I had taken in as a kid in Sunday school and church, and as the granddaughter of a woman who memorized Bible passages.
If anyone was responsible for my love of prayer, it was Nanna. Maybe that’s why I opted to leave the Abode rather than stay. I had seen traditional, unvarnished, un-gimmicky faith. I had taken it in with Sunday dinners, and I had stood next to my grandmother in church, hymnal in hand, singing with all my might, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” on Easter morning. Church was, for a time, the conduit for a light stream that seemed to single me out and offer the promise of something like redemption, which I sorely needed. I wasn’t going to trade that in for something of lesser value.
It bears stating that my parents visited once while I was at the Abode. My mother was convinced I was being brainwashed by a cult. The idea that—if that were the case—she and my father might have a role in my going in search of something better had not occurred to her. I was still her screwed up, depressed, stubborn, and—yes—selfish daughter who was living in rags intentionally to torment her.
(I have one humorous memory of proudly handing my father a slice of tofu pumpkin pie I had helped make, only to have him hand it back with the blunt assessment, “It tastes like shit.” I laugh because I would probably myself say the same thing about tofu pumpkin pie, today.)
I made the decision to leave. I packed up my stuff and got in the car with a woman who was driving to Philadelphia to see her adult kids. I had never been to Philadelphia, but it seemed as good a destination as any. Late November was the beginning of the holiday season, and for the first time in my life, it looked as if I would not be celebrating Christmas with “la famiglia.” Many more solo Christmases would follow, and none of them ever felt good. In fact, I still haven’t figured out a way to get through a beloved holiday—a mere 24 hours—on my own without feeling as though I’m undergoing open-heart surgery without anesthesia. I hate it.
But my experiment in communal living was not a waste. I culled new-age-y fads from my interests while also affirming my belief in something greater. One day I would learn at the knee of a real guru, the Hindu chaplain from Harvard University, Swami Tyagananda, with whom I briefly studied the Gita and Upanishads, sacred Indian texts I had read on my own and discovered had much in common with my most beloved Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength,” and my second favorite Bible verse, John 1:1: “The Word was God and the Word was with God.” More about that later. The take-home point here is that I had a kind of natural faith and inquisitiveness that nonetheless needed a home, because as the Katha Upanishad says, life is really, really hard.
Get up! Wake up! Seek the guidance of an illumined teacher and realize the Self. Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, and difficult to traverse.
But study of Hinduism and a renewed appreciation for the Christianity in which I had been raised was decades down the line. At the age of almost twenty, my urgent work was still, simply, survival. Each day that I came through unscathed added to a trauma-free timeline, akin to miles between me and the explosion in the rear-view mirror. It also shifted the proportion of my life that was truly mine and not under the authority of parents. I didn’t know that as that proportion changed, so would my responsibility for making good decisions. I didn’t know that, because no one had ever taught me. I had to figure it out myself, and that took a long time.
I guess that’s another reason I am writing this. I think of you doing a similar thing, getting distance from a loss-laden past and accumulating a lengthening succession of unruffled days. At least that’s my hope. I mean it when I say that there is no end of sorrow for the anguish I caused.
I will end there for now, on a hope for peace.
P.S. Please don’t ever hitchhike.