Flight under cover of darkness
I walk out of my house at 4 a.m., carrying my duffel bag and guitar, and make sure the door locks behind me. The neighbourhood is dreaming, deep in a clear summer night. The nearby streetlight reflects brightly off the top of my Nissan in the driveway. Stashing my two objects in the trunk, I shut it, open the driver’s side door, and strap myself in. In a moment, the engine breaks the neighbourhood’s early morning silence and I pull away, turning right at the corner. After a few short blocks I turn left onto Highway 17, the main north-south thoroughfare of the Myrtle Beach area, whose lanes, too, are deserted this early. A mile south, passing a green wooden gate on the left, I lift one hand off the wheel and put it to my heart. I turn my head briefly in the gate’s direction while going by.
I try not to think too much about what I’m doing. Ostensibly on my way to St. Louis to visit my parents for a two-week vacation, I’ve pretty much decided not to return to Myrtle Beach.
This is a very big thing, for I’ve longed to live in the community near the Meher Baba Center for most of my adult life. The Center is a 500-acre (the equivalent of about two square kilometres) spiritual retreat and wildlife preserve right on the Atlantic Ocean. Meher Baba, regarded by his devotees, including me, as the Avatar of our age—the equivalent of the Buddha or Jesus—visited there from India three times during the 1950s.
I’d been enchanted by the Center’s spiritual atmosphere since first setting foot on the land 25 years ago. For the past two years, I’ve lived in my own house a mile away and two short blocks from the ocean, which my folks bought for me when they came to feel I was settling down in life. For the four and a half years prior to that, I rented a room in a friend’s trailer. I volunteer at the Center in different capacities several times a week, always feeling it a privilege. I also give a once-a-month concert in the library, occasionally recite poetry or sing in the meeting hall, and feel especially proud that my paintings were once exhibited there.
It’s my personal life that’s a mess. Supposedly a “celibate aspirant,” I just don’t know if I can take the loneliness anymore. Things are all knotted up, and I’ve found myself in a process of deciding it might be best to make a new start elsewhere. Much of this process has gone on without my conscious volition.
I often reflect on the seeming irony of my “revolving-door” relationship with the Center. I never intended it to be that way; a permanent resident of this community of “Baba-Lovers” is what I’d always wanted to be. Each of my several moves to the area over the years was accompanied by the intention, “This is it.” Then, after awhile, something would happen and I’d end up living a couple of hundred or even 1,000 miles away, with no immediate prospect of coming back. I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as being “spun out.”
This time, in my self-talk, I describe my plan as “leaving God to find God.” In spite of what I feel were my best efforts over the years, I’ve spoiled this holy environment for myself. But if Baba—God—really is “everywhere and in everything,” it has to be possible to discover Him anywhere! During the difficult recent months, I tried hard to “get His attention.” In the Lagoon Cabin, where the God-Man gave interviews during his 1950s visits, I’ve lain prostrate before the Master’s chair at discreet times when no one else was around. Perhaps the seeming lack of response occurred because Baba knew I needed to leave!
My belongings will have to stay back in the house for the time being, as I’m finding it impossible to deal consciously with either the shame of leaving or the practical matters involved. Instead, I‘m keeping myself in a sort of conscious state of denial, allowing the plan to remain in the back of my mind.
At 48th Street, I cut over a quarter of a mile to the bypass, and just west of downtown, turn right onto state highway 501. Through a series of state roads, I’ll link up with I-95 at Florence, 60 or so miles (about 97 km) away, and in a day and a half or so, driving mostly on interstates, I’ll be in St. Louis.
It feels good to be on the road. For a day or two, you don’t have to make decisions. You don’t live anywhere; you’re just a person driving. CDs and books on tape will help me pass the time.
Heaven, then purgatory
Memories begin to visit me as I drive. My first trip to the Center took place a few days after Divine Love began pouring out of a photo of Meher Baba in a friend’s advertising office in Chicago. I’d been in the city visiting former college comrades. A day or two later, another member of our old group who’d also “come to Baba” told me about Kitty Davy, Baba’s longtime disciple who helped manage the Center until she passed away in 1991. “She’s on fire!” he said. The fire in his voice prompted me to query the friend in whose office the experience took place about whether we might be able to visit there. Though I hadn’t held out much hope about going on such short notice, “ask and you shall receive” was the order of the day. My friend offered to take time off from work and drive me, along with two other people new to Baba, to Myrtle Beach.
We drove all night, though the car was buffeted by storm after storm all through Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. I imagined the storms as “seven seals”—and who knew? Everything seemed to have mystical significance during those days.
One of the female passengers and I had clashed several times while in the close quarters of the car. However, upon arrival at the Center, we went for a walk together and ended up holding hands. As we walked, she told me she felt the presence of Angels, and that they seemed to mass near the fence that divided the Center from the surrounding land.
Uncannily, Meher Center was a colony of people who were, in essence, just like me! It was almost too wonderful! Somehow, it brought to my mind the last scene of Fahrenheit 451, in which a small group has migrated to the woods. Each community member has memorized a great book, because there are no more printed books in the world, and each cohort walks around reciting his or her entrusted work aloud to keep the memory strong.
I first moved to the area five years after that initial visit. Again, there were extraordinary experiences, but it was as if I had no traction. In a month, in spite of my intentions, I was gone.
Five more years after that, I’d lived a heavenly year in the community, working for Lyn Ott, the painter of hundreds of “expressionist” paintings of Meher Baba. Lyn had developed a progressive eye disease and had finally lost the last of his sight. Amid the anguish of losing this “most precious possession,” he’d slowly made the adjustment to being a painter with words. He’d authored a book about his artistic development, which culminated in his meeting Baba in India in 1967 and deciding thereafter to paint Baba into every canvas. Now, he was working on a novel about the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer. One day, in the Center’s kitchen, he asked me to help with the project by reading back new chapters, noting the edits he made while I read, making my own suggestions, and finally, retyping each section.
During that year, I’d frequently contributed music and poems at the Center’s meeting hall. I’d felt not only inspired, but useful. I’d had a role. It seemed likely that through Lyn’s sponsorship, invisible forces had granted me this sense of feeling grounded and at home at the Center and in the community.
Near the beginning of our association, I’d asked Lyn for a few days’ leave. Feeling the need for a female companion, I’d thumbed down to Florida to try to find my former wife and convince her to come back to live with me. Arriving in Cocoa Beach, where friends had said she was living, I spent a warm winter day sunning myself beside the Atlantic, with no idea how to go about finding her. Rising in late afternoon and walking over to the main street, I asked the first person I saw, a young man riding by on a bicycle, “Do you know where Eleanor Beardsley lives?” The young man pointed to a house almost right in front of us and said, “She lives right there!” I smiled, but that’s the way things happen with Baba sometimes.
Eleanor and I had sat in the front yard and had a heart-to-heart talk, at the end of which she’d affectionately declined my invitation. Then, on the way back, I met a young lady at a Howard Johnson’s counter just off the highway. During our conversation, she said, “Yesterday, in New Jersey, I got on my knees and asked God for a better life.” We travelled together by bus for several days, through Daytona and Savannah, finally arriving back in Myrtle Beach, where we started a life together. Some months later, at Lyn’s suggestion, we’d married. It seemed that Baba was giving me everything I needed so that I could do my work undistracted!
That whole year, the movies of Meher Baba shown on weekends in the meeting hall were not movies! Baba’s image was on a screen, yes, but as real as flesh! Words fail to convey the experience. I sat at Baba’s feet, as close to the screen as possible, and tried to surreptitiously touch my head, or a hand that had touched my forehead, to the floor as often as possible.
The most recent six and a half years of my life, though, had been different. Arriving at my friend Ed’s trailer after driving down from New Jersey, I could hear the strains of my favourite spiritual anthem, “Victory Unto Thee,” playing on a tape deck inside. It seemed a presentiment of good things—Baba’s welcome. But all this time later, I felt myself drying up on the vine. Efforts to find a compatible girlfriend had ended pathetically. My blunders had left me feeling like I’d burned bridges. My initial resolution to endure the loneliness had begun to change, as I found myself involuntarily withdrawing from people. Even during my weekly stint as the Center’s night watchman, a position I’d loved, I began to avoid Center guests. Recognition seemed to be dawning that I lacked some sort of ripeness that permanent residents of the community must require.
Change of plans
Nearing I-95, I pull into a McDonald’s for a drink. Taking out a map and studying it while sipping a soda, I notice that I-95 does not meet up with any direct route to St. Louis, as I’d previously believed. It connects to I-40, but today’s I-40 is not the Highway 40—also known as the Express Highway—that had carved its way through St. Louis during my elementary school years. That thoroughfare has since changed its name to I-64, and runs much farther north.
A better way will be to head north on the state roads and go west upon reaching I-64 or I-70. State highways will be more scenic, and I’m not in the mood to rush for another reason, as well. Tomorrow is July 10, Silence Day. It’s the anniversary of Baba’s refraining from speech for spiritual purposes, which began in 1925 and continued through the last 44 years of his life. Devotees around the world observe silence on that day every year. For me, it will be better to be on the road than at the home of my parents, where such unconventional behaviour might lead to endless note-writing.
The visit that was not a visit
Three days later, at 9 a.m., I pull up in front of my parents’ place, totally worn out from driving all night. I grab my things from the backseat of my car and straggle up the walk to the lobby of the three-storey building. A moment after I push my folks’ button, a loud buzz sounds. As I pull the handle of the glass door, the white door of their unit halfway down the hall cracks open. Mother comes out and peers in my direction. She waves and smiles as I walk towards her. She’s known my arrival to be imminent since I phoned during breakfast over in Illinois, just in view of the St. Louis skyline. I bend slightly to give her the obligatory, yet affectionate kiss on her wrinkled cheek, not far from her expensive, natural-looking reddish-brown wig.
“You must be exhausted!” she says. “Put your things in your room and come sit down for a minute or two before you go to sleep.”
A little while later, I’m sitting opposite her on the sofa, marveling as I always do at her flair for combining the antique and modern in her decorating. “You do look tired,” Mother says. “Why didn’t you stop at a motel?”
“I wanted to get here,” I explain. “Those extra two days in the mountains while the car was being repaired were nice, but once it was ready, I didn’t want to dawdle. After dinner last night—at the Colonel Sanders Original Restaurant and Museum, by the way, which I happened to pass in a little Kentucky town—I just felt like making a dash! Listening to my book helped keep me alert. I pulled over at rest areas twice and napped. Anyways, I’m here and I’m safe. By the way, where’s Dad?”
“He’s at the zoo, doing his docent work. He’ll be back by the time you get up. I hope you can have a nice vacation here. Think about what you want to do together. We’ll take you to Bevo Mill for dinner one night. Maybe we can go to the new casino one afternoon, too.”
“I don’t know if I want to go to a casino, but Bevo Mill sounds like fun,” I reply. “I remember that place. Down on the south side—on Gravois, right? Well, OK, I guess I’ll go to bed now.” I rise and kiss her on the cheek again before departing down the corridor that leads to the guest room.
The secret’s out
I enjoy much of the next couple of weeks, as I enjoy most of my visits to St. Louis. Revisiting a hometown allows a person to inhabit old haunts, free of knotty associations they may once have had. It’s a delicious life in a purely aesthetic realm. And yet, although thinking of my stay as a visit affords me some relief from the pressure about where I’ll live, another longtime challenge pursues me even in St. Louis. My paintings were discovered by a gallery owner in Myrtle Beach, and her sponsoring of my work helped it to become somewhat popular. Tired of day jobs as a clerk or substitute teacher, I’d seen a possible road to becoming a professional artist and writer. A recording engineer friend helped me add a literary “product,” an audiocassette of short stories, to the art sales.
The marketing of the tape, however, had failed dismally. Fresh from this failure, I feel the need to produce a whole new body of work. Influenced by my readings in Jungian psychology, I believe that the artistic exploration of “complexes” and the archetypes behind them can release and transform energy and lead a person forward in life. Every morning after breakfast, I write. At the very least, I write “morning pages,” a daily free-writing exercise that Julia Cameron recommends in her book The Artist’s Way. Every afternoon I go back to my room, carefully cover my work area with newspaper, and paint until “something” emerges.
When I’m not pursuing this quest directly, I work out at the JCCA gym, visit the few friends who still live locally, or occasionally go for a drive or hike in the country. Most days, I rendezvous with the folks at dinnertime. Time passes very quickly.
The dinner at Bevo Mill is meant as an end-of-visit treat. The venerable German restaurant is in a hundred-year-old windmill that Anheuser Busch himself used to dine at during his buggy drives to the Busch brewery from his estate. The walls are covered with 19th-century paintings and the waitresses dress as Bavarian frauleins. The food is excellent, although the atmosphere is rather stuffy, with clientele consisting entirely of elderly Caucasians.
On the way home, I sit in the backseat as Dad drives the air-conditioned car through the dark city. I feel protected, like a little boy. I realize, though, that it’s time to shatter that illusion. Delaying the sharing of my plans is no longer an option.
Mother says, “So you’ll be here a couple more days, then? Have you reconsidered about the casino?”
“I don’t think I’ll be going back to Myrtle Beach,” I blurt out.
“What?” she asks, with surprise.
“I don’t want to go back to Myrtle Beach. I think I’m going to stay here.”
“But you’ve always wanted to live near the Baba Center!” she says. “Don’t you like your house there?”
“The house is fine,” I reply. “I just don’t feel I really fit into the community. I want to try living here.” I know my parents will not be able to make me return to Myrtle Beach. Since I was a little boy, they’ve scarcely been able to make me do anything.
“Well,” Mom says, always one to divert intensity by postponing it, “You can stay with us awhile longer and think about it. I suppose if you decide you really don’t want to go back, we can call that friend of yours who sold us the house and have her put it back on the market.” She seems tired, but her voice is gentler, more accepting, than I’d expected. None of us talk much the rest of the way. When we arrive at their building, Dad parks in the garage and we all go up to bed.
In the morning, I go out for breakfast as usual. Something is different, though; I can feel it. My status has changed. I’m a resident now, not a guest.
A change in the weather
Within the week, I begin to have run-ins with both parents. Mostly, these are about seemingly trivial matters that clearly represent archetypes whose vast power lies under the surface. Mother predictably quibbles about my hair, clothes, room, and diet, and especially whether I exercise enough.
An incident that took place during a particularly inspired period I’d gone through years before suddenly comes to mind. She and I had been standing in the kitchen across from one another. I’d been trying to share with her a sense of the Divine Beauty of existence. She abruptly interrupted me with the words, “You have a spot on your forehead!” and went on to repeat them as if the matter was a grave emergency. Finally, I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror. Noticing a miniscule dot of white, possibly a tiny piece of dried white-out, I sighed and peeled it off.
Now, she’s even more set in her ways. The two of us are like the warm fronts and cold fronts that give rise to the tornadoes I remember from growing up in this region. “Just visiting” had been one thing, with everyone on their best behaviour. Some lever has been tripped, and every little incident now ends up as a flash point!
With Dad, too, a memory from years before surfaces. I’d come back defeated from my first stay on the West Coast, feeling totally lost again only a year after my Meher Baba rebirth experience. Upon my return, the habitat of my upbringing seemed unmasked, somehow. Words of love spoken there now had to vie with the experience I’d had of what I knew to be the real thing in its purest form. During this period, the sight of my father caused me to go into a rage. Something had felt wrong with the family picture. After a few days of these outbursts, however, Mother had nipped them in the bud by spiriting me off to live with her brother and sister-in-law in Cincinnati.
Now, Dad is an old man. He still goes to the office for a couple of hours a day, but mostly, he watches TV or goes out to a movie or restaurant with his brother-in-law Nick and his old friend Harold, who are both retired and declining physically. Though Dad is quite obese, his favourite activity is stopping at a nearby Burger King for snacks.
His car was recently rear-ended and he got bruised. It was nothing really serious, but he’s made an insurance claim that reads like a brazen attempt to cash in: “This accident has ruined my Golden Years,” he’s stated in his report. I can’t help but comment, “Dad, that letter is shameless!”
Mom hears my comment and comes into the kitchen, inserting herself between us. “You leave him alone!” she says sternly. “Your father has a bad heart. Do you want to kill him?”
“Of course not,” I say. “But did he have to pad his claim that way?” Over on his chair, Dad looks innocent, as if he doesn’t understand a word that is being said.
“He can do whatever he wants at this point in his life! Leave him alone or leave this house! Do you understand? And while you’re at it, why don’t you go and clean off the paint you’ve gotten on the furniture in your room!” Her emotional upset appears to be turning her white. I’ve only seen this happen once before—but then again, I’ve been living away for years.
“Now I’m hyperventilating!” she continues amid laboured breathing. “You see what you’ve done? Now I have to go to the emergency room!”
“Just take it easy,” I say.
“It’s too late for that! You leave him alone while I’m gone!” Mother flies around the condo like a fluttering bird, grabbing her purse and slamming the door behind her. Dad and I are alone. We go into the bedroom peacefully to watch Seinfeld together, but I’m beginning to realize that my mother has entrusted herself with the responsibility of protecting both of their lives, and everything else comes second now.
She gets back two hours later, still huffing and only a little less pale. They’re so frail now, I realize sadly. I really might inadvertently kill one of them.
It’s time to move out.
New home at The Cambridge
On a visit to the city of several months’ duration a few years before, an old friend had told me about an inexpensive rooming house in the Central West End, a section of St. Louis filled with coffeehouses, pubs and antique stores. The place had been only slightly run-down, and rather charming. I’d enjoyed my stay in the humble quarters.
The morning after Mother’s trip to the emergency room, I phone the manager of the old building, known as The Cambridge, and make an appointment. Harold, the owner, remembers me, and has his son show me a third-floor unit with a view of the street through the branches of a great sycamore tree. The garret is furnished with a rollaway bed and a desk-sized table, chair, lamp and dresser. Its little kitchen has everything anyone could need, all crammed into a tiny alcove. The place is perfect!
I pay the deposit and first month’s rent and go back to get my belongings at the folks’. When I announce the move-out, they wish me well in a calm, friendly manner. We’re already back on good terms. Trying to live with them had been solely responsible for the crisis.
Once at the Cambridge, I realize it’s time to accept another hard truth. My effort to be a full-time artist and writer, at this point in time, is a wash and possibly even a delusion. I’m still painting and writing every day, and the images from my brush, in particular, seem powerful. Yet I feel like I’m running on a treadmill—spinning my wheels. My explorations don’t seem to be leading to any deeper integration.
There can be only one reason for this: it’s not the right time. Baba is saying, “Let it go.” I need to go out and get a job.
The insight comes as a great relief.
The right job
I buy a St. Louis Post-Dispatch and open it to the classified ads. During my extended visit a few years back, I worked part-time as a delivery courier. It hadn’t been a UPS-style company with a uniform, a company truck, and a constant deadline rush. With the small companies, you just fit the dispatch radio onto the console of your car, slap a magnetic company logo on its side, and stick an antenna, also magnetic, up on the roof. There are deadlines, of course, but reasonable ones.
I set up an interview with First Preference, a small company in the warehouse district of University City, where I grew up. The young, friendly human resources director seems happy to see me. He sends me right out for training with an affable, bearded fellow named Tom. I sign on for three days a week, still wanting to leave myself some downtime in case the muse starts visiting again.
The day after training, I set out on what quickly becomes an adventure of discovery. My formative years were largely confined to the suburbs and to Forest Park, where the zoo and art museum are. A year spent driving a taxi in my 20’s served as a profound education, but it turns out there are still areas of the region I don’t know.
A couple of mornings a week, I and a number of other drivers are called to a warehouse near the company office. At the far end of a mid-sized earthen parking lot, a rolling door by the loading dock yawns open. Dozens of brightly-coloured plastic tubs lie stacked in the storage area. These contain pharmaceuticals to be delivered to drugstores all over the metropolitan area. Many of the stores are located in small towns across the Mississippi River in Illinois.
As the weeks go on, I come to love filling my car with the tubs, setting off across the river and then leaving the interstate to follow state roads that wind through cornfields and woods. Finally, I arrive on the outskirts of a town, and a few blocks later I’m cruising down the main street. These towns retain an early 20th-century charm, with marvelous Victorian homes, old churches and quaint commercial zones. Some of them are county seats and have large public courthouses with ornate stone statues out in front. Many shops in most downtown areas are closed, however, having met their demise when Wal-Mart opened on the outskirts.
I easily meet most delivery deadlines, but in a lot of ways, being a courier is, as my taxi stint was, as much an education as a job. I get to know the foothills of the Ozark Mountains to the southwest and the towns along the Mississippi to the southeast. Over in Illinois, I often make deliveries to the old steel mills in Granite City, which I don’t remember even passing during my childhood, and to the oil refinery farther north in Wood River. I cross both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to make runs to Alton, a small city built on hills sloping down to a dam and canal lock, behind which the Mississippi is like a lovely lake.
In the central part of the city of St. Louis, I find myself delivering wiring, light bulbs, toilet paper or any number of other things to ancient factories with bricks almost black with soot. These are the ones that are still functioning, though the city has been losing both industry and population for years.
These factories make ball bearings or other esoteric creations that become components of products or machines. Their large buildings, constructed in the 1920s or earlier, when the city was among America’s fastest-growing, often have mullioned windows with dozens of panes. Rubble is strewn everywhere in the yards, and many objects indoors are covered with grease.
Getting out of my car, I shout near the entrance of a building. Receiving no answer, I walk into the front room. Finding no one there, either, I enter a winding maze of dark, tunnel-like passages that lead through cavernous rooms full of complex, roaring machinery, with wheels moving and gears meshing, but betraying no clue about what’s being made. Sooner or later I find someone able to sign—usually an old fellow in grease-spattered overalls, who looks as if he came with the building!
When autumn arrives, so different from fall in the South where I’ve been living for years, the leaves become almost supernaturally beautiful in their shades of gold, red, yellow and orange. In some places, they’re exclusively a pale gold, making it easy for me to imagine I’m in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elven lands. All this, and then when my first pay cheque comes, I feel like leaping in the air! I assumed the job would pay a pittance, and have been doing it largely to make a point with myself. However, the cheque for the first two weeks is enough to cover rent, food, and gas for the whole month. I feel rich! Except for medical insurance, which my parents insist on carrying for me, I’m earning my keep.
On my rounds, I tune into NPR first thing each morning, to get the feel of the day. A little later, I switch to my current book on tape. In this way, I keep company as I drive with Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Aldous Huxley, Dostoyevsky, J.D. Salinger, and many other souls who were or are, in Henry James’ words that I’m fond of, “people on whom nothing is lost.” I always carry a notebook in the car, and write journal entries during delivery lulls. Though I’ve written a great deal of verse in my life, that muse, inundated by recent events, went into hiding awhile back and still hasn’t resurfaced.
A life assessment
The great leafy sycamore branches brushing against the window in my little bohemian garret leave me feeling that I live in a treehouse. Sometimes the moon shines brightly through the branches, and I imagine “making tea for this friend who has come to visit.” I enjoy romanticizing my loneliness this way.
A person looking at my life might think I’m happy, I realize one day. Philosophically, I believe that happiness is always with us. Looking back, even at hard times, years later, a person can find it. But in truth, my present is still often a funk of loneliness, accompanied by a sense of sexual need and frustration. The procession of attractive and enticingly-clad women that I see in public leaves me semi-aroused much of the time. When the pressure becomes too much, I masturbate. However, that kind of relief exacts a price. Since my late 30s, this act has been followed by a sense of severe depletion that can last for several days. During this period, my thinking is weak and I lack the energy to connect with other people.
Nonetheless, I continue to make what feels like a heroic effort to face life, which wears a new but similar face every day. Surely Baba is pleased with the steps I’ve taken.
Though things are better than they were, I’ve noticed that, since coming to St. Louis, I’m not really able to feel my feet touching the ground. There must be additional steps to take. Someday, hopefully, I’ll experience myself standing squarely and solidly upon the Earth once more.
To read the concluding part of this story, which includes a new and significant character, visit Adieu, Rivendell: Leaving God to find God [Part 2 of 2]»