This story appears in the book Toward an Interior Sun: Awakening by a Master, and the Difficult Journey toward Discipleship. In this collection of short stories, Max Reif digs deep to offer an entertaining and insightful account of this arduous spiritual trek. The tales lead the reader from epiphanies of youth, to the life of a spiritual seeker, to a deepening awareness of the maturity required for true discipleship. Learn more about the book.
On a Saturday morning in late September, Malcolm got on his bicycle and rode, under the warming Florida sun, to the bookstore of Erehwon College. Locking the bike in front of the store, he looked up to see Richard, a full-bearded fellow transfer student, walking towards the front door. Malcolm suddenly felt a nameless, reasonless fear in his gut. Richard seemed to represent an unknown, alien world.
Malcolm had only been at Erehwon a couple of weeks. It was surprising to feel the anxiety surfacing already.
His first two years at Northwestern had left him feeling lost. Beyond the perimeter of his parents’ dotage during his St. Louis upbringing, he’d gradually discovered he couldn’t control his world. As time went by, he’d become less and less able to function.
He’d transferred to Erehwon to make a new start. That idea now began to appear naïve. Richard, the store, the surrounding world and sky all seemed fuzzy. Malcolm felt a strong urge to get back on his bike, ride home, and hide in bed.
True, in this year of 1968, there were a lot of reasons anyone might want to hide. The country, the whole world, in fact, seemed to be lurching towards the edge of some cliff. Riots, assassinations, and general divisiveness over Vietnam continually upped the general anxiety level. The only sanity available was whatever refuge one’s own mind could provide. Malcolm’s refuge was diminishing.
He’d felt enthused, leaving home for the first time two years before, still thinking of himself as the powerful figure he’d been as a senior in high school. He’d even had the confidence to ask girls for dates during Orientation Week at Northwestern. But when one of them responded to an attempt he made at humour while dancing with her—he didn’t even remember the joke—with an abrupt, angry “You’re crazy!” he’d begun to withdraw. Joining a fraternity after Rush Week, he never really felt comfortable with the brothers, and quit after two quarters. Much of his memory of the first year consisted of anonymous trudging to classes during the Chicago winter with its foot-deep snows, scarcely speaking to anyone.
In the spring, Malcolm became involved in a flurry of political activity on campus. A new sense of identity as a radical boosted his spirits, and the rush of energy carried him on into sophomore year. But that second winter, the lover with whom he’d lost his virginity and spent fall quarter cocooning in his room, had suddenly ended their relationship. After that, a political identity was no consolation. Malcolm finished the school year in a prolonged existential stupor. In June, walking away from the off-campus apartment he’d shared with one of the radical leaders, he looked back at the building and made a vow never to return to Northwestern.
Back in St. Louis for the summer, he soon noticed that this decision to start over began to put the whole Northwestern experience behind him. The sense of control brightened his mood. He’d learned of Erehwon College, an experimental school on Florida’s Gulf Coast, from a high school acquaintance who was going there, and had been accepted as a transfer student after lunch with the dean of students, who happened to be visiting the Midwest. Flying to Florida after having been back home with parents and friends, he’d felt confident again about the future.
The terror he felt now at the bookstore seemed far out of proportion to anything that simple shyness would cause. Malcolm sensed something wrong inside, down in a place he couldn’t even see. Perhaps something he didn’t remember had happened during childhood. The class he was taking on Freud naturally led to such speculation. Regardless of the cause, though, he realized he needed to take the situation in hand—open himself up.
Right there, in front of the bookstore, Malcolm made a vow. Either he would go to a psychotherapist, or he would take LSD—whichever opportunity came along first.
The psychedelic drug was gaining a reputation among its adherents for its capacity to usher them to previously inaccessible depths. Malcolm had read Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception and Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology, as well as several articles in popular magazines. Although he found many of the aesthetic and mystical perceptions of Huxley and Watts incomprehensible, it was clear that the psychedelic experience had opened up a new world for each of them.
As for therapy, his father had been concerned about him the summer before, and had sent him to an old army pal who’d become a psychiatrist after the war. But that had been for a single interview and an evaluation.
His mother had spoken to him once during childhood about a boy at school who “came from a broken home” and visited an analyst regularly. That little boy’s mother had told Malcolm’s that at his sessions, her son played Fish with the doctor. Malcolm had felt a tender caring in his mother’s voice, but also a deep pity. Her words, as well as other, unspoken values in the family, had stigmatized all forms of counselling. “Not needing therapy” had long been one of the things that enabled his family to feel superior to “troubled families”—perhaps a myth they’d had to preserve for their own survival. Now it was necessary to re-evaluate this old taboo.
The next day, still feeling unsettled, Malcolm boarded a bus on campus and rode, along with two dozen other students, to a New Party political rally in a park adjacent to a marina near downtown Sarasota. The New Party was one of several fledgling, left-liberal organizations that had sprung up after the defeat of the Democrats in the 1968 presidential election. A girl named Amy, intriguing in a cerulean blue dress with a gold strip at the hem that made her look like a comic book heroine, greeted him as he got on the bus. A hand of fear restrained him from sitting next to her, and after returning her greeting, he slipped into an empty row near the back.
In the park the day was sunny and comfortable, cooled by ocean breezes. The Gulf was blue and the trees and grass were lovely, bright shades of green. The world shone and sparkled, but Malcolm continued to feel cut off. He left the group and walked around the park alone as the amplifiers began to blare out the speaker’s words. Halfway around, he came upon a mustachioed young hippie in a tall hat, a buckskin jacket, and striped bell-bottoms, standing beside a pair of arching palm trees.
“Just back from the West Coast!” he murmured from his throat. “Got some Blue Cheer, 100 percent pure! It’s far out!”
“How are things out west?” Malcolm asked, trying to sound casual. He’d taped photos of the Summer of Love on the wall above the bed of his freshman dorm room, along with a sign saying SAN FRANCISCO OR BUST, but was yet to get there.
“Far out!” the hippie said.
“How much is the acid?”
“Five bucks a tab,” said the young man. “Two tabs for nine, five for twenty.”
“I’ll just take one,” said Malcolm, pulling his wallet uncertainly from his pocket and getting out a five-dollar bill. The hippie took the bill, then reached into his jacket pocket, got out a tiny cellophane bag, and slipped it furtively into Malcolm’s hand. Malcolm kept walking. After a hundred feet, he unclasped his fist and looked at the bag that lay in his palm. The oblong, oval pill was a pleasing robin’s-egg blue, speckled with tiny green dots. He pulled out his wallet again and pushed the bag deep down behind his driver’s license and Social Security card. Then he walked the rest of the way around the park, winding up back at the rally, whose main speaker had just ended his talk. People were starting to approach the snack table and then gather in little groups for conversation. Malcolm got a cup of coffee and listened to a campus political leader rant about how the New Party was a liberal sell-out, until it was time to board the bus back to school.
A week later, having nothing to do on Saturday night, Malcolm was walking aimlessly around campus and ran into Tyrone, an Afro-haired Caucasian whose obsession was his electric guitar. Malcolm’s and Tyrone’s parents had befriended each other during Parents’ Week, and the families had lunched together.
“What’re you up to?” Tyrone, who rarely said anything, asked.
“Nothing at all,” said Malcolm.
“Wanna drop some acid?”
“Uh…sure,” Malcolm replied. “I just bought my first tab last week. It’s right here in my wallet. Never knew if I’d ever take it at all. I guess now’s as good a time as any.”
“Let’s go in my room,” said Tyrone, motioning his head. In the bathroom, his hand disappeared into the medicine cabinet and came out holding a round, bright yellow pill. He filled a glass with water for each of them. Malcolm pulled the staple off his little bag, fished out the blue tablet, put it in his mouth, and washed it down.
“What do we do now?” he asked, taking a deep breath, knowing better than to ask “How do you know when you’re high?”—a question he’d inquired of the long-haired, bearded friend who’d first turned him on to marijuana, spring of freshman year at Northwestern. Shortly afterward, he’d looked again and seen not his friend but the Devil, making repeated questioning clearly unnecessary.
So now, LSD ingested, he and Tyrone went back outside and started walking the nighttime campus once more. Malcolm was pretty sure that something would happen, even though it seemed logically preposterous, in a way, that such tiny pills could really do much.
After a while, he felt a kind of electricity coursing through his body and the sky seemed electric. He looked for lightning and was surprised to see that the night was still clear.
Now the palm trees seemed to be joking with them. “The trees are holding their arms out like butlers!” he announced to Tyrone. “Maybe we should order a drink from them.” Tyrone bobbed his head knowingly as he laughed. His silent laugh was static electricity and his hair looked as if he’d stuck his finger in a socket.
Malcolm realized he’d never get a regular conversation out of Tyrone, just these looks and nods and head-bobbing laughs. Was Tyrone really some kind of mechanical man? His last name, in fact, was Watt. Maybe he was just some kind of electricity terminal. It was too weird. When they came to an intersecting walkway, Malcolm turned onto it without a word and continued on alone, hoping Tyrone wouldn’t notice—or if he did, would understand.
Everything was very funny on LSD. LSD was about how funny everything was! The bricks had stacked themselves up like houses of cards. The steps were walking up and down themselves, over and over. The tiles of the walkways and courtyard were a vast checkerboard where a thousand pieces might play, and the students were the pieces.
Someone came sauntering along in the shadows from the opposite direction. It was his apartment mate, Rick Shea, in his thick brown glasses, wearing a peach-coloured shirt, shirttail hanging out over his khaki shorts.
“Rick, I dropped acid!” Malcolm told him. Rick had a sympathetic face. There were lines on his face that showed how he felt, whereas Tyrone’s never gave a clue as to his feelings.
Rick frowned in serious concern. “What’s it like?” he asked. Rick had once mentioned that he and his girlfriend, Martha, had taken the drug.
“Well, it’s all electricity! Everything’s about electricity. It’s crackling in everything! Tyrone’s laughter sounded like an electric guitar! Everything’s just pulsing, all through me, around and around. And I saw the steps marching up themselves, and how a thousand checkers could play on the tiles of the palm court. It’s all so funny!” Malcolm felt his face straining as he smiled.
Rick looked at him, seriously and sadly, eyes intent across his thick glasses.
“You’re way up in your head, Mal,” he said. “That’s fear you’re feeling, and you don’t even know it!”
“Oh, my God, you’re right!” Malcolm gasped, realizing suddenly, with horror, that unbeknownst to him, his consciousness really was stuck in a narrow box of fear.
“What are you afraid of?” Rick asked. “What is it you really want to do?”
“I want to go see Heidi,” Malcolm confessed. Heidi was a small, cute, funny girl who wore bright-coloured T-shirts over loose jeans. Malcolm only knew her a little, but whenever he saw her, he wanted to gather her up into his arms.
“Thank you!” Malcolm said and hugged him hard. Rick hugged back and then continued on his way.
What time has it gotten to be? Malcolm wondered. Time was an immeasurable ocean. Not wearing a watch, he had no idea how much of it had passed since he and Tyrone had taken their LSD.
Heidi lived down on the Key, a mile and a half away, in a little house she rented with some friends. Malcolm had helped deliver a sofa there two weeks before. Now he rode his bicycle through the dark streets towards the causeway. There were only a few cars left on the Tamiami Trail. That meant it was probably late.
He still had to be careful, wearing dark clothes and all. He rode on the sidewalk when he could. The streetlights were far apart, and there could be a minute or more of darkness between pairs of headlights.
Passing a pagoda-like Chinese restaurant south of campus, Malcolm was no longer a mass of nerves trying to hold in the electrical energy that powered him and the universe. He’d made the turn towards what he wanted. He had faced himself, and as he’d done so, the mask of what he now realized had been a terrible superficiality had fallen away. He was Odysseus, ancient, timeless warrior, traversing the ocean of darkness between himself and Penelope—a mythic figure as ancient and strong as Orion in the sky. This LSD truly plunged you into fathomless depths that lay present, wherever you were, buried just beneath your fear and denial. People called it a drug, but that was a misnomer. Lies and advertising had drugged everyone into a walking stupor. LSD took away the blinders that hid the true significance of life.
Malcolm continued to ride his old, bent-up bike, but it may as well have been a Viking ship, plying unknown waters to the edge of the Earth. It seemed a long way to the house near the cul-de-sac of its quiet street a few blocks from the bay, but after a timeless interval, he arrived. Nothing seemed to be happening on the street, but light glowed from a window in the house. The light was on the ground floor. Heidi lived in the basement, whose windows were dark.
Malcolm, having come all this distance, knew that again he must face and overcome his fear. He set the kickstand on the bike, walked up the driveway to her entrance and knocked. There was no answer, so he knocked a little harder. Finally, he heard a shuffling inside then a click. Light came flooding under the door. It opened before him. Heidi stood there in her bathrobe, eyes half open, yawning.
“Oh. Malcolm,” she said, looking a little puzzled.
“I’m on LSD!“ Malcolm said. Just mentioning ingesting the substance identified one as a contemporary explorer-knight. “Will you come out and talk to me? Please?”
“Hold on a minute,” she said, with neither enthusiasm nor disdain that he could detect. She went back in and pushed the door closed without latching it. A moment later it started opening again, as if of its own accord. Malcolm looked down to see a white paw pulling it. Then a large, droopy-eared Basset Hound came sauntering out and looked up at him.
“Hi,” Malcolm said, scratching him behind his ears. “What’s your name?”
“He’s named Jeeves,” Heidi said, following her dog out. She was wearing a red T-shirt, jeans, and sandals now. The three of them walked out to the curb.
“I came all the way from campus. I was with Tyrone there, and I was uptight but didn’t realize it, but then I saw Rick. Good old Rick,” he went on. “He’s a saint.” Heidi was close friends with Martha. “He told me what I was feeling was fear, and I realized he was right, and that what I really wanted to do was come and see you.”
“I like you,” said Malcolm, looking into her eyes, then looking down again, and catching Jeeves looking up at him with big, understanding, doggy eyes. He scratched the animal again, thankful to have something to do with his hands. Heidi put her hands to her forehead for a moment as if in thought, then settled them in her lap.
“I just got finished with a relationship,” she said, “and I’m trying to keep things really simple for a while. I have a thesis to write, too, and…well, let’s be friends, OK? I’m afraid that’s about all I can offer you right now. Now I need to get back to sleep. It’s 4 a.m.” She rose and Malcolm rose, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek before walking back up to her room with her dog.
“Good night!” Malcolm shouted loudly from the curb as she was about to close the door.
“Ssssshhhh!” she said, putting a finger to her mouth before disappearing inside. But he was in ecstasy now. Restraint was the farthest thing from his cart-wheeling mind. Where her lips had touched his face, a garden had blossomed—a rose garden, every atom fresh and fragrant! He was living at the centre of the psyche’s eternal fairy tale, cast in the role of hero. Face your fear and everything blooms! Again it had happened! It was the one message life had to teach, the one action that opened all doors.
He knew without a doubt that later she would come to him, to his bed. Her kiss had told him. Now he need only wait. Inwardly, the eternal lovers were already reunited. All that remained was the external consummation.
The sky was losing its black, and as he rode on his bike it lightened more, as if his pedalling was making it light. He rode faster and faster, making the sky lighter and lighter!
He decided to pedal to the beach to celebrate this new love before going home. Heroic lines of verse began to course through his head as he sighted the expanse of the Gulf and rode towards the waves that dashed in all their exuberance upon the shore: “And I took all I had done and gave it all to the Sea! And the Sea said, ‘It is good!’”
Malcolm parked and locked the bike and walked across the beach that was golden in the pink dawn. He bent down and washed his face in the effervescence of salty brine. All the grime of his 20 years began dissolving and washing off in the sparkling, foaming waters. He yanked his shirt high up over his head, waved it around and around, and flung it as far as he could. Then he ran into the ocean in his shorts, drenching them. He kept running, playing tag with nature, colliding with the eager waves, meeting Neptune in the gentle trailers of his seaweed beard.
And then the sun, a freshly cracked egg, appeared over the horizon. Malcolm accepted the blessings it showered, that he could almost see, and bowed to return something to this young but mighty benefactor. As it rose higher, becoming a small, yellow pellet radiating still more happiness, he walked back to his bike, unlocked it, and rode alongside the elemental sea towards home—the First Man, on the First Day of Creation.
Turning inland, he soon realized that he was completely spent from his trip and its labours and joys. In a last effort, he pedalled the mile up the trail, parking the bike in front of the apartment. Before climbing into bed, he placed an arrangement of flowers and seashells he’d gathered, on the walk in front of the front door, for her to see when she came. He fell asleep wondering whether he would wake before she arrived, or whether she would let herself in and climb in beside him and shake him gently to arouse him—or possibly, do it with a kiss.
But of course, she didn’t come. Not that day or the next, or the next. When he finally saw her one day walking on campus, she didn’t run over to him and throw her arms around him. He felt completely raw and naked, but she seemed not even to notice him.
Gradually, it began to be clear that he’d imagined his entire scenario. His mind grew ever more raw, more naked in its pain, day by day. He struggled to hold together two worlds that were slipping away from each other—his imagined, desired one, and this deaf, brutishly solid world that didn’t hear his dreams and just lumbered on and on.
He sought out a campus counsellor, the sympathetic wife of a biology professor. She listened attentively, nodded, and seemed to understand. But Malcolm received little relief from her commiseration, and continued to echo with the reverberations of the shock of his waking nightmare. The worst was his total confusion about what his visions had meant. The gates of Heaven had closed and locked him out. There was certainly no way he could approach Heidi about his state, for now he clearly remembered her words: “…that’s all I can offer now.”
The world was solidifying again, and he was powerless to stop it. His mind, scanned for possible solutions to his dilemma, and came up with only one. He began to look, and listen, for a way to get hold of some more LSD.