Part I: The Defeat

These paintings were done during a time of great inner turmoil. I had longed all my life to be a permanent resident of the community surrounding the Meher Baba Center (a 500-acre retreat center where people come from all over the world) in Myrtle Beach, SC. The place had been like Tolkien’s Rivendell for me. I’d visited many times, had felt myself shown a new way of life there, and had lived there particularly happily for one eight-month period in the early ’80s. However, after returning for another six years beginning in late 1991, I admitted defeat; with my tail between my legs, I drove to my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, ostensibly for a vacation, but inwardly feeling like I would not return to the community.

This defeat was a terrible shock, psychologically. “I had to leave God to find God,” I told myself. (Note: Meher Baba is believed by his followers, of whom I remain one, to have been God in human form.) Living in the Myrtle Beach Baba community seemed to require social adeptness…degrees of wholeness…camel-like capacities for living through spiritual droughts…that I had come to realize I didn’t have.

In St. Louis, I tried staying with my parents. The “honeymoon” there was over in a week. After a few more weeks, to avoid giving my folks heart attacks from the stress, I moved out to a sort of garret on the third floor of an old, somewhat run-down rooming house in the bohemian part of town. It felt like a treehouse, the window opening right into the green branches of a huge sycamore. The moon—my only friend at that time—and I would visit when it came to nest in the branches. I look back on the place with fondness.

During my weeks at my folks’, I had tried to “triage” my isolation through painting and writing. I had had representation in an art gallery in Myrtle Beach, and was a published writer. But though I find these seven paintings featured here (representative of a larger number that I did) powerful, they did not successfully relieve my state of mind. No matter how much art, how much writing I did, I found myself continuing to bleed, psychologically. I felt like I was running on a treadmill, but getting nowhere.

Part II: Beginning from Nothing

Ladder of Renewal

After some time, just as I had had to admit that staying with my parents beyond a week’s “vacation” was destructive at my age (I was nearly 50 at the time), I also had to acknowledge that my routine of going to a cafe, having breakfast, reading and writing in the mornings, and going home to paint in the afternoons was not healing me.

With some thought and then surrender, I went out and got a job as a delivery courier. That was during the days when you could get gas for a little more than a dollar per gallon, so it was a viable proposition. I worked for a little company that didn’t make me rush all the time like UPS or FedEx. I was able to use my own car, listen to books on tape, and even write poetry and journal while waiting for assignments from the dispatcher. The combination of living on my own (I did visit my parents and speak with them by phone) and working around 30 hours a week, but keeping two weekdays free in order to continue artistic projects, began to stabilize me.

I was not happy, but rather deeply lonely, and I felt starved for physical and emotional affection. However, I had managed to begin functioning, a bit like a plane that almost goes down in water and then begins to level off and fly, even if at a low altitude at first. When I got my first paycheque, I was thrilled to see that except for medical insurance, I would be able to support myself financially!

 Part III: The Ladder

Ladder of Renewal

Today I think of that period and the one that followed as “The Ladder.” Steps continued to reveal themselves, and I kept taking them. It’s quite lovely to look back on all this now, and I’m left feeling quite a bit of respect for myself.

After I had been at my job for several months, my 50th birthday came around. My parents took me out for lunch and surprised me with my first personal computer. Setting it up in my garret, I used it to get back in touch with the worldwide Meher Baba community, to start with, on a Listserv where you could post and receive responses, and respond to others’ posts. I began to share interesting or humorous incidents from my days on the job roaming around the whole St. Louis metro area and beyond—rivers, ancient factories with ancient workers deep in the city, foothills of the Ozarks, the golden autumn—as well as reviews of the books I was listening to, movies, jokes, and sometimes a formal short story or piece of visual art.

Now I had a kind of “family group”…nothing “personal” with anyone, and I was still very lonely; but I’d taken another step, into the blossoming World Wide Web.

Part IV: The Tower

Into the Light painting - Ladder of Renewal

Other steps on the ladder included recognizing one day that I needed therapy, and going to Catholic Family Services, where they had a sliding scale; then, a little later, beginning to date via personal ads with the encouragement of Jerry, my therapist. My efforts to connect intimately with women in Myrtle Beach had been disastrous and I needed a lot of encouragement to even try again. It was no panacea by a long shot, but I had taken another step.

The last big step was to explore a long-time fantasy I’d had about living up in the clouds, on one of the higher floors of a luxury high-rise. It was just a fluffy dream, but when I looked into it, a condo on the 19th floor of the Executive House in the Central West End turned out to be almost laughably inexpensive! When I told my parents about it, they asked me to allow them to buy me a place. The expense was almost nothing for them at that time, so I consented.

One rainy spring night shortly before the move, I walked the five or six blocks from my rooming-house digs to a corner just down and across the street from the Executive House. The glow of the illumined floors of the 22-storey building splashed onto the street, creating an arresting reflection on the wet pavement, like another, better world. I remained quite lonely, even after all my “progress,” and standing there, I sent out prayers from deep in my heart. No automatic improvement in my internal state was going to result from my living in a fancy building, but I prayed that whatever might truly help might also come along.

Part V: New Despair—New Hope?

Mothertree painting - Ladder of Renewal

Six months passed. I moved in, enjoyed the view of St. Louis far below—you could even see a sliver of the Mississippi showing through the buildings far to the south—and continued my job and my therapy. I also began taking a dance class. Good poems, ones that people appreciated, began coming out of me now and then. When it came to dating, I seemed to be running out of steam, but I never knew what might happen.

One Friday in early October 1998, I drove 300 miles to a Meher Baba weekend in the mountains of northern Arkansas. I came back feeling lonelier than ever. I had not been able to bond very well with others at the gathering, and had spent a lot of time comparing myself to those people who seemed happy, successful, and loved…you know how it is. Driving to and fro was actually the best part of the weekend. It included stopping for a wonderful visit to the small but excellent art museum in Springfield, Missouri.

When I walked in my condo door after being let in by the doorman and taking the elevator to my floor, I felt very depressed. All these rungs on the ladder, all these new stages of effort—but, I wondered, was I really getting anywhere at all?

After a self-pitying night that finally led to sleep, I woke, made breakfast, and fired up the computer on my table with its panoramic view. Perusing the emails that had come in, I saw one that had the headline, “Maxie, you are a treasure!”

What could that be, I wondered? Naturally, I opened it first, although I was a bit wary that some ad might be trying to bait me with those golden words.

Part VI: The Resurrection

Royal Couple painting - Ladder of Renewal

The email was from another member of the Meher Baba computer group I participated in, the Listserv “Baba-Talk.” She lived in California, and wanted to tell me that she had been quietly reading and enjoying my posts, without comment, for the past six months: all my anecdotes, poems, stories, reviews and jokes. She was writing to me to express her appreciation, and to say that she felt us to be kindred souls in some way. Slowly, we entered into a correspondence. I would disappear for a few days occasionally, too depressed to write, but our friendship seemed to have taken root. As time went on, both of us began to depend on it.

One day, maybe a month and a half after that initial email, I realized within a few minutes of getting up that something big had changed! For the first time in at least a couple of years, I felt happy—genuinely glad to be alive! No more having to pretend while dragging myself through the day. All the love that I had been receiving had had a cumulative effect that I was only now able to feel. I had been like a seed that had needed enormous amounts of nutrients, care and sun, and it was now time for their effects to become conscious.

Fifteen years later, that woman is one room away, cooking our dinner as I write. We’ve been married for ten years, but have really been a couple ever since those days in the late fall of ’98. We were able to visit one another several times during the year after, due to a huge supply of frequent flyer miles my father’s boss had accumulated, that no one was ever going to use. Interestingly, as soon as I moved west in November 1999, the fund ran out.

Postscript: Birth Continues

Ladder of Renewal

For some time after my Awakening, the smallest things would move me to ecstasy; for example, the flight of birds above an industrial boulevard, or the taste of coffee on a cold morning. Every road unrolled from joy to more joy. The whole world was my little ball of silly putty.

After a while, another chapter with its own attendant challenges began, and I hope to write about it too someday.

Something—the “Wise One within”—seems to keep getting me from phase to phase. I often feel like a tightrope-walker who is suddenly asked to dance too. What life requires seems way beyond my level of competence. But that which I keep surrendering to and resisting has already gotten me much further than I ever believed possible!

images: Max Reif