Celtic and I ditched our classes after lunch. It was not the first time. We typically went to the campus bookstore first, inside the student union that was shaped like a Japanese pagoda. I bought candy for us. Sometimes Celtic lifted something and discretely placed it in his coat pocket while the clerk was preoccupied. Even if the clerk saw us, he probably would have just laughed anyway. At most, a kind letter would have circulated throughout the campus that said something like,
Gentle reminder. We have noticed some children are absent-mindedly forgetting to pay for their goodies. Please help them remember that they should pay for their items. Jai Guru Dev.
There was a dark room close by with a large screen television sitting on a battered wooden table that tilted. Large encyclopedias were propped underneath for stability. The TV had an oversized knob that tickled my hand when I turned it. The room was usually vacant with faint smells of dampness and mold wafting about. The plaid couch had chunks of foam and springs protruding under its torn cushions. When Celtic sat down first the other end teeter-tottered into the air. We passed time in that cavernous space, snacking on Lemonheads. Daytime soaps flashed images on the fuzzy screen. Beautiful people in the midst of sultry love affairs or corruption. Maybe even a murder. Occasionally we got lucky and a game show was on.
Most of that time we spent musing about girls. The lack of light made the subject easier. We were segregated at school by sex, classes for boys and separate ones for girls. But it was the other kind of sex that danced seductively in our minds for the greater part of each day. Morning hard-ons. Evening ones, too. The exhilaration of coming home to an empty house and jerking off in peace. Certain friends had cute sisters that made sleepovers thrilling. We saw girls in the hallway at school. Awkward flirtations and smiles, rumors of who likes who. Sometimes a note. I French kissed a girl the year before, and even touched her breasts under the bra for a few minutes. But she stopped my hands when I clumsily fumbled with her belt. It was foreign territory at thirteen. The story sometimes stretched with friends, but the kiss and other stuff really happened. My heartbeat accelerated before I went for it. My breathing irregular, I looked for signals and stood at the edge of the cliff, self-conscious. I chewed cinnamon gum that burned my lips a little. With closed eyes, I just jumped.
Outside when we felt it was safe, Celtic and I walked toward the trailer park. His trailer was only fifty yards from mine. Sometimes he had cigarettes that he lifted from his mom, who wasn’t on the program. One afternoon we were spotted, as our principal drove by. His shabby silver hatchback with broken muffler pulled beside and he hand rolled the passenger side window with some effort.
“Jai Guru Dev. Hello, gentlemen. Is everything okay?” His voice kind and sincere.
I crouched low, sort of a cool lean into his window to make eye contact. Celtic hung behind. My right hand rested on the Honda’s roof, fingers rubbing against patches of rust.
“Jai Guru Dev,” I said.
“And the classes, gentlemen. Is everything alright?”
I glanced at Celtic as he stared downward into the cracked concrete, then shifted my gaze into the car.
“Yes. But we had a particularly powerful meditation this morning and don’t really feel it’s a good idea to be in class this afternoon.”
Our principal, donning an ill-fitting but requisite khaki suit sat erect in his seat. He paused reflectively before speaking, as he often did while addressing the student body. His hair, uncombed and slightly damp.
“Can you please tell me more about that? About the meditation and how you’re feeling.”
I often led the conversations when our class spoke with authority figures, prompting several teachers to speculate a future in law or politics.
“I can’t speak for Celtic, but he shared a pretty similar experience. Being best friends and all, we’re tuned-in that way.”
“Mm hmm,” my principal acknowledged, nodding slowly, looking ahead. Celtic’s father taught math at the high school and my father taught sixth grade. It was common knowledge we were a team. Rare to see us apart.
“Well, everything started as it typically does. I had some thoughts, and then more thoughts. And then things quieted down, and I sort of just went to this place and realized for a moment that I don’t think I was breathing.”
“I see,” the principal said, shifting in his seat. “Continue. Please.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I must’ve been taking less than three breaths a minute. I don’t even think I had thoughts at that point. It was like I was in outer space, just floating. I remember Mr. Green ringing the bell to stop meditating so we could begin our rest. I just wanted to stay in that place, though. It felt like cotton. Like a big swimming pool of cotton. Anyway, I had a headache after coming out of meditation, and it’s still there.”
The principal hung onto each word, nodding intently. After a few deep breaths through his beaky nose, the silence waned and he began,
“Oh. Very good. Magnificent! Not the headache of course, but the other part. Very good, very good indeed.”
His sparkling blue eyes beamed passionately into mine with a sense of knowingness that something like this would eventually occur. And here it was, on his watch. I was revealing the fruits of their labor; their hard, committed path to raise the bar of humanity. I was the next generation and showing real promise; a prototype they would excitedly rush from the production floor to the enlightened board of directors. It was why so many of our parents uprooted us from our birth states and dashed to a place where winter lasts half a year. They knew the magic of the technique. Wide-eyed baby boomers dutifully following a tiny Indian sage, and now, architects of the coming utopia. Our principal breathed even more deeply, his nose longer in profile, and nodded again.
“Are you okay, now?” he asked concerned.
“I think so. Better at least. But Celtic and I think it’s probably best that we just rest this afternoon and not overtax ourselves.”
“Very wise. Very wise, indeed. That’s what you should do. I wish you both a splendid afternoon and hope to see you tomorrow. Sans headache, of course. And Celtic, please take good care of our Nicholas here. Thank you for being such a friend. And a gentle reminder to attempt your homework, assuming you feel okay to do so, of course. Jai Guru Dev.”
“Jai Guru Dev” Celtic and I said in unison.
And with that, his rough engine sang down the potholed street. Not long after, we were at Celtic’s trailer, his mom forgetting a pack of her contraband Salem’s on the kitchen counter where she kept her keys atop a wooden bread box. I had a lighter in my backpack, resting next to a stolen Playboy.
***** *********** *****
The hero does not undergo one singular journey. Many adventures and experiences are available throughout a lifetime, and the more we pursue them the further we descend to the palace where wisdom is birthed. A journey can also be shared in part with others, though the path is still an individual one. My father led our family on a heroic journey when we left an old cottage on five-acres in northern California. Ducks, goats, chickens, and cats roamed freely around dark wooden barns and coops. I threw ninja stars with my cousin, Corrinne, into those weathered coops. We had just started kung fu. Smells from nearby farms blew through some days, but mostly a sweet aroma of hay, eucalyptus, and sea spray from the coast. Our home shared a long-graveled driveway with our crotchety landlord, George, and his demure wife, Gladys. She made me a Darth Vader cake on my fifth birthday. He was a prisoner of war, a Reaganite, and a hard man. His battered leather boots crunched slow moving snails while he muttered, “sonsabitches.” Our sidewalk was riddled with their slimy corpses. He later grew marijuana as a senior citizen for Gladys, while the cancer took the best of her. It was the only way she could eat, he explained. Not long after her death he crashed his car. I remember the knock. It came late at night, and mom put my sister into bed next to me. He had cuts on his face and the smell of fermented booze drifted from the kitchen. The cops showed-up later, but mom covered for him. He loved our family, especially mom. There is a black and white picture of my father, shirtless in bellbottoms, clutching me to his chest in that driveway. When people visit, they ask about it. The resemblance. But all that stuff out west was abandoned so we could commit ourselves to a spiritual commune in middle America. We were going to do our part to usher in heaven on earth.
Fairfield, Iowa has less than ten thousand residents and lies about an hour southwest of Iowa City among rolling cornfields and well-manicured farms. In the center of town, a gazebo and perfect square of eclectic shops provide everything from sustainable building supplies to organic scented candles and handmade wooden furniture. A hardware store reminiscent of the fifties sits catty-corner to a sushi restaurant. The old and new live compatibly, though that wasn’t always the case. Strong breezes in warmer months invoke smells of pig waste that permeate the air from nearby hog lots. Summer months also bring live music with brass instruments. On the surface, Fairfield is just another nondescript Midwestern village that runs on slower pace and provides a safe and inexpensive place to raise a family. Most doors are still unlocked at night, and most children ride their bikes freely through old Victorian neighborhoods. But underneath the façade, Fairfield is a spiritual enclave with an unorthodox history.
Transcendental Meditation, or TM for short, was brought to the United States in the 1950s by its principal founder and guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, TM ascended on college campuses through the rise of the counterculture and hippie movement. All things Eastern and spiritual were groovy, and top shelf celebrities like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, propelled the technique’s popularity. My parents discovered it in the early seventies in Berkeley, not long after my father returned from India and my mom saw Janis Joplin. Today, millions of people globally have learned TM. In 2012, Fairfield was highlighted on Oprah’s Next Chapter for its uniqueness. Although the town attracts a wide populace of stars and seekers, most have no idea what the early years were like and what is really in the soil.
In 1974, the TM Movement purchased a 370-acre campus of the bankrupt Parsons College, and relocated its headquarters from Santa Barbara to Fairfield. The vision was to create an ideal community where meditation took place twice a day in large groups. An accredited university, and primary and secondary school centered on “consciousness-based education” were also established. According to Maharishi, group meditation positively influences societies by lowering crime and creating balanced citizens. Through a systematic daily practice of TM, people raise their consciousness and if enough people do it, its effects ripple throughout the world. For the devoted and the disciplined, meditation is the pathway to “Pure Consciousness;” the source of all creation that bestows a lifetime of bliss, creativity, and happiness. To sustain a permanent community of meditators, two meditation halls with golden domes, one for men and another for women, were erected on the campus.
I was one of the children who came to Fairfield on the first wave in the early 1980s to be part of the utopian vision. Ironically, we lived in a trailer court on the campus called Utopia Park. My father was hired to teach at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment (MSAE), where my older sister and I attended with several hundred other students. Our mother was also employed as a secretary, and reprimanded her first day for wearing makeup. I first heard about Fairfield when my parents dropped my sister and I off at my aunt and uncle’s apartment. Where my parents were headed sounded far away. My mom’s mom visited and said something about our father being mysterious. And that he didn’t play golf, either. She spoke in hushed tones with my aunt.
Fairfield was mentioned again on my fifth birthday. Bubbles the clown made balloon animals for neighborhood friends and cousins worn out from the Slip n Slide. We removed our wax mouths with funny teeth and fangs, then poured Hawaiian punch into small Dixie cups. Sugar was a rarity in our home, and I felt strangely guilty washing down the Vader cake with it. But it made my lips red, and I liked that. We sat under a shady oak in the middle of our lawn to open presents. Somebody got me a ninja outfit, and dad promised to order more throwing stars from the martial arts catalog next to my bed. Later in the day, a man I’d never seen before pulled into our gravel driveway. The man was tall, rail thin, and wore a cream suit. A quality of importance shrouded him, my parents greeting with their hands clasped in a sort of prayer-like fashion. Mom had cleared off a table inside, and the stranger placed various things on it. Some of the items smelled strangely. In the middle, a picture of an old man with a long grey beard sat prominently staring through gentle eyes. Flowers and fruit were brought into the room and placed reverently next to the picture.
“Happy birthday, Nicholas. What a joyous and special day it is for you, yes?”
My parents stood in the doorway looking on, smiling.
“Has anyone explained to you what is going to happen today?”
I shook my head. The man had a soothing voice and spoke slowly, deliberately. His hazel eyes sparkled.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the picture.
“Ah,” the man laughed. “That is his Holiness, Maharishi. His full name is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And this other man over here was his teacher, Guru Dev. He was a powerful and wise man in his day. He held an especially important spiritual post in India many years ago, and Maharishi was his greatest student.”
I stared into the picture. The man reminded me of a wizard. His teacher sat in a strange posture on top of a tiger skin with a stern face. I wondered if he killed the tiger. When I stared long enough at the wizard, he faintly blinked and smiled.
“Is he like Jesus?” I asked quizzically. I knew a little about Jesus from my dad’s mother, my British nana, who was a devout Catholic that went to church every day. The man laughed again, along with my parents.
“He has similar qualities to Jesus, but he is different. Maha means great, and rishi means teacher. When you combine the two words together it means great teacher. Maharishi is a title given to a great teacher. A person who knows many things, like mysteries and secrets of the universe. And today you will be taught the wonderful Word of Wisdom that he developed.”
My father sensing my confusion stepped closer and whispered,
“It’s like Luke Skywalker, Nick. He was able to do all those amazing things because he had Siddhis; special powers like what you’re going to receive today.”
A poster from Star Wars hung over my bed. Just a few months earlier I sat mesmerized at a drive-in theater as the forces of good and evil did battle. A wooden light saber made from a broken broom handle and wrapped in twine rested near the poster.
“Yes, that is a good comparison,” the man added. “Luke Skywalker spent time with his teacher, Yoda. You can think of Maharishi like Yoda.”
He paused briefly, then added, “And you can think of the Word of Wisdom like the Force; a special power that you will be able to use throughout your life. Shall we get started? Are you ready to accept these powers?”
Before the ninja craze went mainstream, I was a devotee. My parents were relaxed about R-rated movies and took me to see Revenge of the Ninja weeks earlier. Shoddy acting and gratuitous violence aside, it was a holy experience. I knew that ninjas meditated before going into battle and they possessed supernatural abilities. In kindergarten at Penngrove Elementary, I drew a picture of a man in black pajamas with a face mask and sword. We were assigned to draw what we wanted to be when we grew up. Confused and likely concerned by the severed heads in the drawing, my parents were called to speak with my teacher, Mrs. Lindsey. My kung fu uniform hung freshly pressed in the closet, while a dozen ninja stars protruded from the barn. Now, the special powers from a Yoda-like master bequeathed. All signs confirmed that my warrior’s path was unfolding beautifully.
The man lit a candle in front of the Maharishi and began singing in a language I’d never heard before. He motioned me to place the freshly washed fruit and flowers onto the altar. Then he dropped a pinch of rice, that clinked against the brass cup. Sandalwood fumes swirled off the yellow incense stick around the prasad transporting me somewhere ancient, but familiar. It was as if I’d experienced this before. The man continued chanting a few more minutes before sitting silently with his eyes closed.
“Nicholas, I am now going to give you your Word of Wisdom mantra. It is important that you never share this word with anyone, even your sister or your parents. Do you understand?”
I looked behind, but my parents were no longer in the doorway. It was just the man and I in my room. His tone remained soft, but an apparent seriousness loomed. I looked at the man and nodded that I understood and would honor the discrete code of the secret warrior knowledge.
A strange word exited the man’s lips; it was more like a sound than anything else. He said it again. And again. He instructed me to repeat it aloud and then again silently in my mind, over and over. He told me that I could do it on a walk or in my bedroom, and that I would feel deep joy and happiness the more I did it. He even said that over time I would achieve great Siddhis and eventually be able to levitate off the ground. I sat in disbelief, as an adult from the realms of truth telling, confided that my life would have all sorts of mystical experiences. I was stoked. After sitting with the insightful man, my parents returned to the room with two pieces of cake. He mentioned something about Fairfield and my parents smiled. Then they left for the kitchen while I sat alone at the altar staring at the great teacher.
Every morning in Ms. Jackson’s first-grade class we did the Word of Wisdom. Afterward we studied the Science of Creative Intelligence, or SCI. SCI included a list of sixteen principles from Maharshi, such as, “The Nature of Life is to Grow”; “Water the Root to Enjoy the Fruit”; and “Do Less and Accomplish More”. We wrote the many SCI principles on oversized poster boards with fruit-scented markers and displayed them throughout the school. My friend, DeLong, always took his marker and closed one of his nostrils, then mimicked like he was snorting something off a table with it. He would look up with wild eyes and yell until Ms. Jackson sent him back to a special classroom. Sometimes we spoke about the meaning of the SCI principles, while other times we expressed them through theatre or painting. The arts were emphasized throughout my seven years at MSAE.
Most meditators lived on campus in simple dwellings like trailers and dorm rooms, and ate in a communal facility called Annapurna. The dining hall had a room off to the left designated for “Silent Dining”. Nobody spoke in that room. There was a commissary for families. On Saturday mornings we rummaged through stacks of yellow crates with gallons of milk dangerously close to expiration. Fruits and vegetables were available, but most were bruised and had seen better days. Sometimes there were eggs. There was always an abundance of unsalted butter and stale cereal. Strange accents and smells fanned through open windows in the trailer park. People from exotic places like Europe, India, and Africa arrived. Our Egyptian neighbor, Gila, once brought piles of laundry over shortly after spotting a washing machine being delivered. International faces spoke earnestly of Maharishi’s global vision to create world peace. We were embodying Vasudhaiva Kutumbakan, “the world is one family.” On occasion Maharishi orchestrated a conference call, creating mass excitement and frenzy. The calls were a combination of praise for our efforts along with sage advice that only a guru can provide. We were guided further on the path, motivated. The domes packed with thousands of people, each seated on comfortable pieces of foam. Our parents soaked-in Maharishi’s every word, while us children ran freely in the basement, making forts and playing tag. The Movement was growing, and we were the architects.
Although young, I sensed being part of something big; something that could lead to the development of a harmonious planet. School administrators spoke kindly and confided that we were being groomed for future world leadership. We were reminded that the knowledge we received was sacred knowledge. It came from the Veda. Kings of past forfeited half their fortunes for it. Some afternoons the academics ceased, and the entire school went outside for kickball or a nature hike. Long before everything new age became mainstream, we were exposed to yoga, Ayurveda, sustainable farming, and organic food. Even Vedic Astrology was part of our lifestyle, as parents bragged in the commissary line about their child being some incarnated sage. Birthday cakes were made of carob. Birthday songs included wishes for heaven on earth. Nobody wore black.
Not long after we settled into Utopia Park, trailer 7B, I wandered the campus’ many dwellings and wooded perimeter. Weathered dormitories that reeked of mildew and sandalwood housed clusters of single meditators. In the common areas, plants and quartz crystals sparkled on windowsills. The vast windows welcomed radiant sunshine that graced golden-framed pictures of Maharishi. Residents placed shoes outside their rooms on thick orange carpet. Some of the dorms had soda machines with glass bottles. The locals called it pop. Most of us weren’t allowed pop, though. In the middle of campus, a Japanese-style bridge suspended over a shallow pond with turtles and long white fish. Sometimes there were snakes. The grounds were vibrantly green and wily, with overgrown grass and cattails. Tall oaks and pines stood confidently above smatterings of historic brick buildings leftover from the Parsons era. It was like the grounds of an elite New England boarding school mixed with the unkempt wildness of the third world. In many ways, if the world were shrunk to a village, the campus’ demographics and standard of living would be close. Rusted cars that shot black smoke from mufflers held on by wire coat hangers sometimes stayed parked for years. Even a dilapidated sailboat sat unmoved for a decade. I wasn’t alone in my explorations for long. Utopia Park had dozens of children eager to explore. Hide and seek and bike ramps occupied our free time. There was a pool in summer. One kid I knew, a Canadian who pronounced certain words funny had an Atari. We spent mornings in his trailer playing Pac Man, afternoons waging war with our G.I. Joes, and then finished with a campus safari. Years later, he took his own life while I was overseas with the military. It wasn’t all blissful and utopian.
There were divisions within the Movement that even as a child I observed. The economically privileged, and those who enjoyed personal time with Maharishi called the shots. Some at the top were quick to quote him, and even anoint themselves as extensions of him. Judgements were also doled out based on a person’s perceived level of commitment, or how “on the program” they were. Even pronunciations revealed subtle clues. Among the diehards, Maharishi was referred to as, “Ma Harshi”. Those even more devout scaled the diction closer, simply calling him “Marshi”. My parents, being among the ranks of the impoverished worker bees stuck to the traditional four-syllable speak, “Ma-ha-ri-shi” common to the campus proletariat.
Egos hovered in subtle ways and skirmishes occasionally leaked into the rumor mill. Some names surfaced after being spotted eating meat at local restaurants, or monumentally worse, purchasing alcohol at the local grocery. One of our parent’s friends confided they bought beer an hour away. Marital infidelities occurred. A ten o’clock bedtime was expected as part of the ideal routine. My mom, who had once been an airline stewardess and model in the Bay Area, didn’t adapt well to the lifestyle. She stashed bottles of wine when company visited, and never warmed to starting and ending her conversations with “Jai Guru Dev”. My dad on the other hand was elated by this utopia. A devout Catholic and altar boy most of his youth, he loved the knowledge he was receiving. He never missed a meditation. At times, a palpable tension radiated inside our trailer. When it hit, my sister and I were told to ride our bikes.
Although indescribably peculiar, and saturated with strange personalities, there was profound kindness, too. Maharishi ultimately urged us to become the best version of ourselves that we could be. He encouraged us to live at 200-percent; our lives equally devoted to both spiritual and material success. We thought about our potential in its fullness, and the consequences of our actions. In addition to the diehards, there were legions of the socially awkward, clad in pastel clothing and ill-fitted suits. Meditation, and other types of self-help organizations attract these types of souls. The campus was a magnet for the odd, and we branded some of them with monikers like “Ogre,” “Eyeballs,” “the Fierce One,” and “Mr. Bean.” Each was given a place regardless. One woman rode her bicycle through town in a down jacket, ski goggles, and bright red scarf. It was the middle of summer. Most men were sickly thin, devoid of muscle and assertiveness. Their strange fishing-style hats were beige in summer and the sheepskin ones in winter looked straight from a Russian gulag. But these qualities somehow produced an endearing charm, too. It produced an acceptance and feeling of safety. We roamed our campus without danger. And the school produced many creative and brilliant minds, including a famous-actor and several professional poker players. But there was also a disproportionately high number of drug users and broken souls in our young ranks. Misfits, perhaps given too much freedom and praise, and not enough direction. Later in life, I learned that a moderate number of my childhood chums did time in jail.
Spending my formative years in a spiritual commune hinted that there was more to reality than simply making a living, buying stuff, and gauging success based on one’s profession. We meditated regularly as young people, taking time out of each day to go inward. Our daily routine centered on staying positive, while not placing any attention or energy on negativity. I didn’t realize the magnitude of this upbringing until years later. For instance, as a university educator, I was struck by the angst and sadness that so many students carried with them. Some barely held themselves together. Colleagues, too. While meditating there was indeed peace, and an inner silence that extended throughout the day. Although the story Celtic and I fed to the principal was bullshit, those experiences certainly happened. There was a divinity on campus; a holy presence that protected like a shield and guided me along a mysterious road like a wise parent. Maybe the Force was real. But as I grew into my teen years gaps also showed, and my utopia began to crumble.
Being nurtured among the new age, and surfing waves of their continuous praise created an unhealthy softness. Among people I’ve met from various spiritual communities, a sizable portion are dangerously naïve or checked out of reality altogether. In the commune, I recall some grown-ups saying that America could do away with its police force and military because TM was the only defense it needed. Some took the words of Maharishi too literally, forgetting to listen to their own inner guide. Personalities became rigid, groupthink thrived, and social awkwardness blossomed. Even fun was sabotaged by obsessive devotion; a strict father who forbade his son from playing war behind the trailer park because it was symbolic of violence. We were above that. But the laws of polarity also prevailed. Fairfield had other stabilizing forces on the other end of its pendulum.
Brad didn’t come from a meditator family. He descended from a proud lineage of Iowan farmers. Generations of them. We met at basketball camp. He brought his toy collection to the sleepover, miniature John Deer tractors. He held up the green beauties with yellow lettering and proudly divulged tales of riding them with his father and uncles. His short frame did its best to stand tall while his chubby face glowed in admiration at the mention of his grandfather; a World War Two veteran and once mayor of a town of less than forty people. Brad’s chipmunk face reddened, and his eyes widened, as my father pulled a ninja sword from the top shelf of the closet.
“Wow, you wasn’t lying. Where’d you get that?” Brad asked.
I held the black sword confidently with both hands, its sharp tip pointed upward. It required a bit of coaxing with my parents, but they eventually caved. The agreement was that it had to be secured in the closet until I was older, but it could be taken down on special occasions, like my sleepover with Brad.
“It’s mine. I’m a ninja.”
Brad firmly clutched the sword for a few moments, shaking his head and exhaling loudly.
Then we handed it back to my father. Brad wandered to a bookshelf in the living room and picked up a fragrant packet with strange writing on it.
“Why’s your family got fireworks in the house?” he asked quizzically.
“Those aren’t fireworks. It’s incense,” I said.
“Incense. What’s that?”
“You light it, like for prayers and meditation,” I explained.
“Meditation? Your family does all that? Are you ru’s?”
“Yeah,” I paused cautiously, then added, “Ninjas do it, too.”
“And ninjas use incense?”
“Yeah. It’s like an offering, and it gives them special powers in battle.”
“So, you meditate because ninjas do it?”
“You don’t worship the devil?”
Brad and I sat in silence for a moment while he digested the onslaught of foreign strangeness before him. After a minute taking it all in, he stated thoughtfully,
“So that’s why your house smells so funny.”
In those early years, the non-meditating citizens were rightfully concerned about the presence of a Hindu guru and flock of outsiders showing-up in their town; many of whom were vegetarian and soft spoken. To the locals, TM was a cult. It didn’t help that two large domes were immediately built with people hopping on foam in their pursuit to levitate. Some diehard women wore saris, the men dhotis. Hindu attire among Westerners raised eyebrows when buying pop at the gas station. When we attended MSAE, we wore a uniform of khaki slacks, white dress shirt and bright red tie. It was not uncommon to walk home and hear a “Townie” hurl an insulting “Ru” (slang for Guru) epithet. Sometimes they chased us. Once, a friend was pushed off his bike and kicked in the balls. It happened outside a shabby convenient store next to an alley, and the clerk who witnessed it, just laughed. I ran as hard as I could, an older kid with long dyed hair and sleeveless Judas Priest t-shirt closely behind. I had a handful of Townie friends, but they were pretty much just acquaintances. Most of life centered on the campus.
I stopped attending MSAE at fourteen when my parents divorced, and my father quit teaching. I no longer received free tuition, so that meant public school among the Townies. This was a crossroads moment. I enjoyed the safe routine of the ordinary world, though something wiser intuited the dark forest was waiting. There was a gentleness I carried from the commune; a sword with a dull blade that was more decorative than battle-ready. I skated by academically. I was praised by teachers and administrators, one even telling my parents that I could possibly lead the Movement one day. Things were easy, but the ease couldn’t overcome the strange awe and trepidation I felt around masculine Townies. These feelings grew over the course of a summer; signs and symbols pointing toward an initiation that hovered close by.
The evening before public school, I dwelled in bed. I obsessed on whether I could unlock my locker and transit between classes within three minutes. At MSAE, we dawdled. Now, I hustled through hallways with farm kids that wrestled and drove stick-shift trucks with gun racks in the back. They killed animals, some with bows and arrows, and brought homemade jerky to class. They rode four-wheelers. They dipped tobacco, drank Old Milwaukee, and fought at parties in the cornfield. There was a shop teacher who wore a big silver belt-buckle the size of a salad plate who glared at me in the hall,
“You need to eat more steak, bean pole,” he’d sometimes hurl at me, his belt buckle reflecting off the artificial lighting. I was many miles away from “gentle reminder” speak.
One kid I knew had two concussions in the same football game and continued playing. There was a grit and toughness that deep down I didn’t have. I discovered a mirror inside the forest, and a cowardly looking figure stared back. The anxious energy first arrived when Celtic and I ventured outside the commune on weekends to congregate with the town kids. Usually talkative on campus, outside the wire I was demure with drooped shoulders.
“Hey, what school do you go to? I’ve never seen you before!” an anonymous face bellowed.
Despite being afraid, my sophomore year was bright. I breezed through the academics and rarely opened a book. Friendships emerged quickly, and a tribe soon developed. Solid dudes consisting of athletes, stoners, and a musician. I even kissed a few girls and did other things. We partied most weekends and enjoyed terrorizing the minimum wage security guards that worked on the commune’s campus. Stealth missions of egging, streaking, and getting chased became our addiction. Sometimes we drove across the state line to Missouri for fireworks. Troy and I led from the front, a dozen soldiers in our army. We took on a name; the Amigo Style Mafia, and even had our own handshake. After assaulting the campus, we took refuge at DeLong’s house. The same DeLong who sniffed the fruit-scented markers. A few years older, I met him my first week at Utopia Park and several adults warned me to avoid him. His single mother did her best to control him. Like many single mothers within the Movement, the campus was a safe haven to heal wounds incurred from the outside wear and tear. Fairfield was the Hail Mary pass and last-ditch effort, a spiritual Graceland. But DeLong had a real knack for bringing tornadoes onto his scene. He was booted from MSAE, and then from public school. Eventually he traversed home to British Columbia to get straightened out by his father. Then he showed up one day.
He had his own home in the factory side of town. We decorated it with a hodgepodge of dilapidated furniture liberated from the back of a secondhand store, where people left their junk. He also had a Canadian I.D. that aged him several years. Upstairs, bottom shelf ales and Boone’s Farm were doled into chipped glasses with water spots. Downstairs, joints passed in the basement, everyone seated on old tires that left black streaks on our jeans. I got a blowjob on one of those tires. A guitar usually turned up, and sometimes livid fathers, too. We stole a Christmas tree from the same grocery store we streaked and decorated it with beer cans and condoms. It didn’t take long for DeLong’s house to get pegged by every law enforcement official in the county. I watched his house for him when he went to jail. In spite of the adventures, something was missing, though. The traditional structure of Midwest public school and small-town hell raising was not enough to pacify the growing sense of the Search. There was something burrowed inside I couldn’t put my finger on, but its existence was wholeheartedly real. The meditation and commune lifestyle were somehow connected to it all, as was the adrenaline obsession. Though I wasn’t sure how it fit, I thought about the initiation rites that certain cultures forced upon their young men. Feelings of possession engulfed my waking thoughts right around the time I learned that I could leave my junior year on account of my advanced standing from MSAE. I negotiated with my parents. I convinced them I needed to explore. I pleaded, and even mildly begged. Dad did it overseas in his twenties. He also backpacked the Sierras. Mom ran off to the airlines just out of high school. They understood, at least in part. Mine just arrived earlier. I assured them I would be responsible. I would work full time at the health food store for a few months, and then venture out to California to live among our outlaw relatives who grew pot, shit outside, and bathed in solar showers with rattlesnakes nearby.
I had discovered the Wild Man within. He was there when I threw eggs at a group of Townies sitting on our town square, the hoods of their lifted trucks open and rebel flag stickers adorned on their cab windows. He applauded, as Troy and I dashed across that same square during a music festival, our cocks and balls slapping against our legs as we huffed passed the post office, two cop cars in tow. The mind-altering substances, the sound of a girl’s belt slowly sliding off, the lurid purr of her zipper. The anticipation of fights and violence at parties. The Wild Man was constantly cajoling me to swim a little bit further into the darker parts of the ocean. To the murky primitive parts, knowing that if the sharks weren’t there or if the land was still in sight, that I was a fraud. I felt him pound his chest, and I heard him beat his drum. He was wily, and unapologetic as his rattle shook. He pointed toward the forest and laughed. And I knew he would never go away. I knew that I had to walk inside.