Spiritual Autobiography as Narrative Fiction : Eleven Short Stories from The Mindful Word
TOWARD AN INTERIOR SUN: a book by Max Reif
(currently in pre-publication)
"City/Self Mandala", 1989, by the author
Below are eleven stories, all published in the online journal THE MINDFUL WORD, which constitute a kind of spiritual autobiography. The events of my life have been archetypal. Both Light and illusory shadows have far outstripped what my younger self would have believed possible. In the footsteps of novelists such as Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe, I've tried to tell these tales from life as "narrative fiction" which remains emotionally, and usually literally, true to events. The world is, after all, God's fiction.
A book, with the tentative title Toward an Interior Sun, is currently in production stages.
"It's not how often you fall down, it's how often you get back up." —Stephen Levine
"When longing is most intense separation is complete, and the purpose of separation, which was that Love might experience itself as Lover and Beloved, is fulfilled; and union follows. And when union is attained, the Lover knows that he himself was all along the Beloved whom he loved and desired union with; and that all the impossible situations that he overcame were obstacles which he himself had placed in the path to himself." —Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing
"I'd like to tell my story, because you know I feel I'm turning into gold." —Leonard Cohen, "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"
FLORIDA (from Toward An Interior Sun by Max Reif)
An eleven year-old's first adventure beyond his home environs brings surprises of both the joyful and painful kind. Here is the entire story from the book TOWARD AN
INTERIOR SUN: Awakening by a Master and the Difficult Journey Toward Discipleship (©2016 by Max Reif, published by The Mindful
I’ve tried to tell the story of our motor trip to Florida, which I now believe was in 1959 when I was eleven, many times before. One time I must have succeeded fairly well, because MOTHERING, a
pretty big magazine at the time, wrote me a few weeks later that they were very close to publishing it. At the last minute, they chose to use something else instead.
Writing down that version had all the magic of conjuring with a wand. It embodied the miracle of writing, the capacity of strange little black lines to bring forth a vision completely intact from
within one person, and put it inside another person. Everyone who read the piece received the newness and adventure of our three-day drive through the kudzu-choked pine forests of the South, in
the days before Interstates, and then all the long, green way down the Florida peninsula. Everyone received a little Fountain of Youth.
Subsequent efforts to tell the story, after that first manuscript got lost in one of my many moves in the ‘80s or ‘90s, were duds. But the trip still lives a mythic life in me, my first
impression of the world outside the womb of our home town and its environs, and so is forever cut into my psyche in very bright, bold relief, beginning with my getting the earth-shaking news that
it was going to happen.
Dad informed us one day that a family meeting (a family meeting— us?) would take place in the dining room later that afternoon. There, he dropped the news that he and Grandpa were closing the
furniture store and taking us in our rocket-finned Dodge Coronet to Miami Beach with some of the proceeds. I staggered out into the front yard, dazed.
Some of my friends’ families, and my own grandparents, journeyed yearly to the Jewish Mecca in the South. Even our Christian neighbors, the Mortlands, had been to nearby Fort Lauderdale. However,
I’d completely accepted that such boons were forever out of reach for our family.
Now, suddenly, Fortune had smiled. Shafts of late-afternoon sunlight through the maples appropriately slanted down onto the grass, as in a scene from a religious movie.
The two-week countdown to our leaving was, of course, agonizing. But we finally pulled away from all of our psyches’ habitual moorings, except for one another and the intrepid car, in the
still-dark of an early August morning.
Everything was much, much better on the trip very soon after leaving, except possibly for Mother, who wasn’t much of an adventurer. I guess she was brave just to come along.
Dad’s improvement began almost as soon as we left the curb. One of the many things I loved about Dad was his always wanting to set out before the sun rose. I imagine all great adventures begin
then, for where such things are concerned, who can wait? We even started before dawn on our Sunday fishing expeditions to Creve Coeur Lake, a few miles from home.
Dad was taking a risk by embarking on this family trip at a time of personal economic uncertainty. Yes, he had a few bucks from the store sale, and he had job prospects on our return. But he was
operating on blind trust that one of them would pan out. They were all shoe-leather sales jobs, carpet or linoleum or furniture, and his talk with Mom when he’d come home at night lately had
sounded pretty stuffy to my brother and me. It was all “Garber said this” and “Courtney said that.” The names were apparently those of prospective new bosses, but never having met the men, Fred
and I couldn’t even picture the faces that went with them.
Dad started off the trip pouring out a residue of such blather across the front seat into Mom’s ear, but as soon as we were out of the force-field of St. Louis and our daily lives, it all dropped
away. It was like some cleansing agent had gone through Dad’s mind and taken away all the boring stuff. He came alive as Dad again! He even became Daddy, the one who had introduced me not so many
years before to the Zoo, the Circus, the Cardinals, Martin and Lewis movies, fishing, and Rockwoods Reservation with its trails and cave, from which we’d plundered many a toad and garter snake,
stuffing them into a pillow-case and unloading them in the ancient bathtub in our basement.
Actually, after the garbage-talk spigot shut off, Dad stayed quiet for a little while. Then he started saying things like, “Hey, we just passed Red Bud, Illinois, and look—the sun’s like a red
We’d set off on deserted streets and crossed the Mississippi half an hour later as the very first rays were pushing up. Then we drove south in Illinois along the Great River Road. I loved that
name, as well as the big green logo of a ship’s wheel that appeared on every highway marker.
Our previous forays into the green fields on the East Side, beyond the sorrowful ruin that was East St. Louis, had been to Stoplight All-You-Can-Eat Fried Chicken, and once or twice to the horse
races at Cahokia and Fairmont. Before long we’d passed those turn-offs and every sight became a new vision swimming into my eyes.
I guess there isn’t really a plot for this story until we near Miami Beach. So how can I convey the Adventure? I hope it isn’t a cliché to say that the pioneers didn’t only live in the
18th or 19th centuries, that every person setting out beyond the boundaries of his own life is a pioneer.
Yes, people had previously been where we drove, to build the state roads we took through the forests of Mississippi—probably the Works Progress Administration, back in the Great Depression, which
had been a mere 20 years earlier. Someone had built the infrastructure, and someone else had much more recently built the Holiday Inn motels that to us were bright, clean wilderness outposts. And
yes, people lived in all these places we passed. It wasn’t an adventure to them to be there. But of course, it would have been to drive out of their lives to where we lived.
Dad had traveled extensively, but that had been in another life. He’d told us stories about how he and his friend Jimmy Higgins had thumbed around America and Mexico. And during the War, Dad had
put together shows for troop morale and had traveled by train with all of his performers all over the country, including the Deep South where we were heading.
For me, this world was as unknown as the uncharted ocean had been to Columbus. I acted as navigator, holding our AAA Trip-Tik, its route thickly outlined in sky-blue marker, on my lap and
advising Dad. I ached for us to take the Scenic Route, which time did not allow, that swept down to the Gulf of Mexico through Mobile and Tampa, instead of inland central Florida. Though my
Florida dream was coming true, just around the corner were more dreams that remained elusive. This was, however, only about as pesky as a mosquito bite.
That first day we made Tupelo, Mississippi. Both place names sounded nearly as exotic as Morocco or Timbuktu. My dim awareness at that age scarcely comprehended the significance or history of the Jim Crow laws that were still in effect all around us. On these narrow forest highways, WHITE and COLORED signs were not even that common.
The second morning, we came to a rickety grey-wood shack of a gas station in a tiny clearing by the side of the road with only dusty ground surrounding the gas pump. We’d been going for quite
awhile and needed a bathroom. Mom had a coke bottle in back for Fred and me to pee in, though that was always a risky, nearly acrobatic affair with the car moving; but sometimes we had to stop
for “the other”.
The whole site—station, tires and car parts strewn around, mangy sleeping dog, rusted trash barrels, absolute mess of a tiny office, greasy little garage—was utterly foreign to a Jewish family
from a Midwestern suburb. Pulling up at the pump, Dad got out and went to scout out the bathrooms. A little later he returned with a sour look on his face. I never got to see how bad it was in
there. Dad got back in the car and turned on the ignition, just as a man who looked like Junior on “Hee-Haw” emerged from the office, crossed in front of our car, and drawled, “Kin ah help
Nonplussed and not wanting to offend, Dad began pulling away, at a loss for words. As an afterthought, he turned his head and shouted loudly to the man, “We’ll come back later!” He was only
trying to be polite, but the whole car erupted with laughter at his expense.
We finally made it to a better place, or at least one that looked better, an actual restaurant some miles past the station. Overjoyed to finally be able to relieve ourselves, we now realized how
hungry we were! The morning before in Cairo, Illinois, in full view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, I’d had my first encounter with grits. Adding two pats of butter, I loved
them! Happily, they came with the eggs here in Mississippi, too. As I dug into my delicious breakfast, safe at this table in the wagon-circle of our family, so to speak, I heard a little scream
nearby. I looked up to see Mother looking ghost-white.
“What happened, dear?” asked Dad.
In reply, Mom picked up her nearly intact plate of eggs, grits and toast. She raised it up and began tipping it toward us, stopping just short of where the food would begin falling onto the
table. Dad, Fred and I craned our heads forward and suddenly I saw: in the middle of mother’s grits was a hair! It was much too short to have come from her own head. A moment later the four of us
were tromping back to the car in protest. I was just thankful that I was a fast eater!
The next memorable thing was crossing into Alabama. It was not like a country character said in a story I read once: “State boundary? If you can’t see it, how come they put it on the map?” No!
Alabama: my “collection” of states was expanding so wide I could scarcely contain it!
Alabama was not quite as exciting as Mississippi, our first Deep South state, had been, until we got to Dothan, a very small town not too far from the Florida border. There, on a
nondescript residential street the highway narrowed to, were the first palm trees I’d ever seen actually growing out of the ground! Several tiny palmettos graced the front yard of a modest,
one-story house, so unobtrusive you could almost miss them. I must have lived my most recent lifetime in a tropical country, because as long as I can remember, I’ve been nuts about anything
tropical. I drove my mother bananas, pardon the semi-pun, making her search St. Louis with me in the car for coconuts, mangoes and papayas, long before every supermarket carried them, until we
finally found some in an “exclusive” grocery store called Straubs.
Not long after Dothan, we crossed into Florida. Florida, Dad reminded me, was a long state. Mind-bogglingly, we were still 500 miles from Miami! We crossed the Suwannee River, which I’m
not sure I had realized was a real place, and then swung south. Florida, it turned out, had “horse country” as well as its hundreds of square miles of citrus groves. We saw the latter from the
top of Citrus Tower, a kind of little skyscraper in the middle of nowhere, built exclusively for tourists.
Our last night on the road, we stopped at the Holiday Inn in Ocala. Here I had a magical experience. Walking out to a traffic circle across from the hotel, I found grandfather palm
tree, no little houseplant-sized thing but a great, drooping green fountain of a date palm, an old, old tree with dozens, maybe hundreds of fronds. It had lovely little red, orange, and golden
berry-fruits. Hundreds of birds, starlings I think, roosted, fed on the fruit, and screeched in its branches, creating a wild, twittering din there just as day was yielding to dusk. So many
things were happening! I felt as if I’d somehow stumbled upon the center of the Great Mandala of all life.
Continuing south, we passed through the Everglades. I don’t remember much water, actually, where we cut through, only a lot of building and logging activity. At a tiny village called Clewiston,
we had lunch at a big tourist trap called the Old South Bar-B-Que Ranch. It was impossible not to stop, as we’d been reading this restaurant’s billboard ads for hundreds of miles. It was one of
those places where a child can stick his head in a hole behind a Cowboy façade, and a family member can take a picture. My brother and I were young enough to get a charge out of that.
An hour or two later, we were driving the Cuban streets of Miami—so many signs in Spanish! We drove a long way down some main commercial boulevard with billboards advertising Jai Lai and
brown-skinned people everywhere. This street led to the causeway to Miami Beach—where, dear reader, our Plot commences.
Our parents’ marriage always had a fault line running through it. It was a class marriage, at least in Mother’s mind, and sometimes the rift caused a blowout. “The Big One” never came, but there
were some pretty big ones, as big as a child could imagine. One of these was the one whose rumblings began as we neared Miami Beach. I’ll delay the actual story another moment to give a
bit more background and maybe create a bit of suspense, which all the Agatha Christie and Rex Stout I’ve read and seen lately have helped me value.
Mother and Dad should not really have had any Class Rivalry, except that Dad was a 2nd-generation American and Mother a 3rd. Their ancestors had come from Lithuania
and Russia respectively, which I don’t think made a difference, the German Jews supposedly being the upper crust.
Dad’s father was a cabinetmaker. In America, he worked in a furniture factory and later owned, serially, several furniture stores and also a moving business. Back in Europe, the story goes that
as an apprentice furniture-maker he’d had to go into the forest, fell a tree, and create furniture from all of its wood, remaining there alone until he’d finished—a lovely image, whether it
happened or not.
Politically, back in the ‘30s Grandpa had run as the Socialist candidate for Treasurer of the City of St. Louis. When he retired after the store closed, he devoted all his time to the garden he cultivated on the big corner property where he and Grandma lived. He also began to read his Bible seriously and became an observant Conservative Jew. He died at 65, same age as I am now, in 1968, back when people still looked, and were thought of as, old at that age.
Mother’s father, after whom I’m named, died just before I was born. Everyone I’ve met who knew him said he was a kind man. He shows up that way in the photos I’ve seen. He had a successful auto dealership in New York City, until his willful wife, my grandmother whom I called “Maw”, made him close it and move back to her home town, Lancaster, PA, where her father had once owned a very prosperous scrap yard. Her brother James had somehow appropriated the whole thing for himself when the father died, and the rest of the family sort of lived in the ruins of their former glory like latter-day Scarlett O’Haras.
Drawing on this former glory, I suppose, Mother seemed to feel she came from Patrician stock. She had once dated a very wealthy New Yorker whose name itself, sounds rich! But she broke up with
him because she liked Dad’s personality. At least that’s what she always said. My father did have an infectious personality. He loved to tell jokes, and when he was young, he was quite
Who knows, he might even have gotten wealthy himself, had he been able to pursue his chosen field—film. He’d loved movies from childhood on, and from the ‘30s until he enlisted in the Army after
Pearl Harbor, he’d divided his time between Los Angeles and St. Louis. Out West, while holding down a day job reading gas meters, he’d studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and appeared as an
extra in a number of films.
In the Army Signal Corps, he rose to the rank of Major. After the war was over and the shows he produced had finished their touring, he was put in charge of a big army film library in Long Island
City, NY. Mother happened to work there. One day, a mutual friend put her in touch with “that handsome officer” because she, a civilian, wanted something from the PX, where only Army personnel
were eligible for the sizable discount.
Dad’s passion for film was so intense that he wanted to go back to California and attend film school on the GI Bill. Before their marriage, he asked Mother if she would accompany him, and she
When push came to shove, though, she began to feel she was abandoning her mother, now a widow, on the East Coast. California was too far away! Even St. Louis, where they finally settled because Dad couldn’t find a job in New York after leaving the army, and Grandpa had offered a partnership in his furniture store, was like the Wild West for her.
By this time she was pregnant with me. Dad, by the way, dropped all this information on me as we breakfasted at Denny’s one day when I was around fifty. Had Mom not been pregnant, he said, he
would have left back then. But his sense of responsibility toward a child, born or not, caused him to stay.
No doubt he went through a hell of a lot of resentment. When I imagine myself in his place, my blood boils! That, coupled with the hated sales jobs he had to take for years and the increasing
complexity of fathering as his children got older, and I can understand the shortness of temper he sometimes evidenced.
His resentment toward mother, though, seemed somehow to dissipate as their 54-year marriage proceeded, until she told me proudly a few years before he died, “Dad said yesterday the thing he likes
best in life is when he and I spend the afternoon shopping together at the mall.”
My parents’ turmoil was all rumbling underground as we drove south in 1959. As we approached our destination, it boiled over. Two people with two different visions are sure to run into trouble!
Dad’s idea was to ensconce ourselves at the Raleigh Hotel in South Miami Beach—the seedy, rather than trendy, end of town in those days, where his own parents stayed for their yearly winter
Mother, on the other hand, had presentiments of luxury at the Fontainebleau, that massive, curving vision of green glass a couple miles to the north. She was like a show girl who’d suddenly been
called for her one big chance! She was Cinderella with one slipper. The other one was made of curved, green glass that fit perfectly!
Having paid the toll at the booth for the causeway to Miami Beach, we’d arrived at Show Time. Someone’s vision was going to prevail. Someone’s would be trampled in the dust. What began as a
discussion rapidly became a shouting match, insults thrown like horseshoes: “You want to stay where your parents stay, the same way you want me to wear my hair like your mother’s! You never grew
up!” To which he replied: “We’re not millionaires! Come down to Earth!”
Tempers went to red hot, then to white. My brother and I cringed, the same way we did during their heated moments at home. I heard a sound, and saw that Mother had opened her car door and gotten
out. She was opening the back door on my brother’s side. “Come on, Fred!” she commanded. “We’ll go to our hotel!” Fred followed obediently—as if you had much choice, with an angry parent.
I sat where I was, feeling no more allegiance to one parent than another, but terrified to see our family breaking up before our eyes.
The temperature was in the 90s as Mom and Fred marched along the shoulder of the causeway, about to walk across Biscayne Bay. Dad put the car in gear and slowly drove alongside them, pleading:
“Please come back, we’ll go there for dinner, for God’s sake, I promise!” I sat mutely in the passenger’s seat. Mother didn’t even look his way. The road was devoid of traffic, allowing us
to make the entire fantastic Miami Beach skyline the backdrop for our psychodrama.
I can’t remember what it was that got them back in the car. Maybe he just wore her out. Something kept my parents together, just as something keeps my current wife and me, as contrasted with my
earlier marital unions, together.
Half an hour later we were checking in to the Raleigh and that was fine with me! There was an open-air tropical juice bar a storefront away where you could get all the papaya, coconut, or papaya-coconut you wanted! Coconut trees waved in the air like hula dancers, and after a day or so, like old friends. What was not to like?
Despite a bit of trouble at the gate, I had arrived in paradise.
"Prelude to a Wagnerian Springtime" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
A story of First Love.
Read "Prelude to a Wagnerian Springtime"
"The Incident": a story about '60s activism (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
Fast forward a few years from "Prelude" to a college campus, on which everything, everything is changing!
Read "The Incident"
"Summer of '68" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
Young, on the trail of love, breezes of freedom in the air.
Read "Summer of '68"
"Coming Into It" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
Another college story, on another campus. The '60s continue, as do visions of 'the chimes of Freedom flashing." Psychedelics enter the picture as a possible way
through, or out. But there are warnings, as well!
Read "Coming Into It"
"Fare to Malcolm Bliss" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
A few years later, at work in the city. A taxicab, with a photo of a smiling Meher Baba silently saying DON'T WORRY—BE HAPPY doubles as a Sanctuary for wayfarers.
"The Key Turned" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
"A story of mystical catharsis and shattered illusions. Martin anticipates a blissful life with his new wife, and while their Indian honeymoon doesn't go quite as
expected, essential inner discoveries are made."
Read "The Key Turned"
"Falling Off the Map" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
Sometimes we get completely lost.
Read "Falling Off the Map"
"Alternating Current" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
A story about Electric Shock Treatment (ECT), with some surprising twists in it. ECT actually plays a role here in restoring stability. But there's also a role it can't play, one which awaits a God-inspired human touch.
"Touching the Soul": painted in 1989 during the protracted period dramatized in this story, when Healing came from deep within me, in the form of Art.
And sometimes we can get lost only to be found in new ways! This is a short story about the miraculous healing possibilities of "Art, when inspired by Love*."
ENTIRE TEXT PASTED IN BELOW:
*quoting Meher Baba: "Art, when
inspired by Love, leads to higher realms."
THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN
I’m sitting in my psychiatrist Dr. Cho’s office in the basement of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the psych ward is. We’re somewhere near Staten Island harbor. I don’t know exactly what direction it’s in, because I was pretty disoriented when Boris and Martin brought me in here a month ago. I couldn’t speak.
I believe now that that was because I was choked with rage toward Boris. Amazing, to find oneself in such a bizarre state, unable to verbalize a single word! And not due to any physical cause, either.
Dr. Cho is behind his desk, waiting for me to say what it is I want. Our meeting’s a bit unusual. Usually, we patients are at the beck and call of our doctors. That is, if we’re not totally ignored, warehoused to pace the halls, go to OT, and gain weight on the carb-rich meals they serve here, until discharge. Yesterday, however, I requested to see my doctor.
“Yes, Mr. Markley?” says the doctor, his big square, bespectacled face surveying me.
“Dr. Cho, I was wondering whether the hospital makes referrals to halfway houses.” I’ve been lying awake for hours every night, now that my discharge is imminent, scanning my mind for a solution to the problem that I have nowhere to go. I certainly won’t go back to Boris’s, and I know very few other people in New York City. Nor do I feel strong enough, not to mention wealthy enough, to live alone.
“Why yes,” he replies as matter-of-factly as if I’d asked him the capital of Colombia. “The hospital runs two halfway houses. If you like, I can look into them for you.”
I’m dumbstruck. Flabbergasted. “Then why the hell didn’t you tell me?” I want to shout. But I suppress my anger, compose myself and say very simply, “Yes sir, I would like that very much. Please do so, as soon as possible.”
It’s two days later, just after breakfast. I walk out to the hospital van. The January air is frigid, and the shock of this cold contributes to my sense of having been reborn from a closed-in, stuffy womb. It’s my first time outdoors in a month. The view across the harbor to Manhattan is spectacular, but the view in any direction through the sweet outdoor air—sweet even with its admixture of New York smog—is delicious, like seeing for the first time.
We drive about a mile, mostly down streets I don’t know, before the driver pulls up and lets me out in front of a large, blue-grey residence with white shutters. I walk up steep cement steps built into a hilly front yard. On the slab of front porch, a few rocking chairs seem to bask frigidly.
I ring the bell. In a minute, a face that looks like a Groucho Marx mask appears in the little window. The door opens and a flabby man, still looking quite Grouch-ish, greets me. “I’m Harvey, the assistant director,” he says. “You must be Martin. Ronnie, our director, is waiting upstairs to meet you. Follow me, please.”
Harvey leads me up two flights of stairs. Before we get to the second, enclosed one, I glimpse a rather formal living room, full of plastic-covered sofas and “pretty” landscapes on the wall. I can see through an open door to a dining room/kitchen with a couple of long tables. The hums of both the fridge and the heater bring a throbbing life to the house. I also notice the quiet residential corridor on the first floor, and an identical one on the second.
“Everyone here goes to a day program from 9 until 3 on weekdays,” Harvey explains as he walks ahead of me. “That’s why the house is so quiet now. The only ones here are you, me, Ronnie and one resident who is home sick.”
Ronnie is waiting in a little crow’s nest office in the attic whose walls are lined with full bookcases. He rises and comes forward to shake my hand as I appear in the doorway. Harvey, having delivered me safely, returns back down the stairs.
“So why are you interested in living here?” Ronnie asks me after our introductions.
“My family’s in Missouri,” I say. “And the person I was staying with before my breakdown is part of the reason I ended up in the hospital.”
“I see,” he replies. “Well, let me tell you a little about Wendover House. Residents are allowed to stay here at for up to six months, and after that, if they choose, they can move on to a supervised apartment. Everyone here is required to go to a day program on weekdays from 9 to 3.”
“Harvey mentioned that,” I say. “I’m willing.”
“Good,” Ronnie says. He pauses to look at me a moment and then continues. “We have a vacancy. If you still want to move in after I give you the tour, you’re welcome to do so.”
We go downstairs and he shows me the house I passed through a little while ago. He takes me into a bedroom. It has two cushy twin beds, a desk, dressers, more landscapes on the wall. It appears a lot more comfortable than my freshman college dorm room was.
The tour ends in the kitchen.
“Still want to come?”
“Definitely,” I say. “It’s clean here. I feel a sense of order.”
I don’t mention this, but during the past hour I’ve felt the first presentiment in a long time that there may be a way forward for me in life. Since I came to New York a few months back to take a series of “human potential seminars,” which quickly morphed into confrontational nightmares, nothing’s gone right. Fleeing to Boris’s big house on the hill—I should’ve heeded my premonition when I heard someone refer to it as “Toad Hall”—I found my old friend now believed himself some kind of guru and exerted a complex, crazy-making spell on me. To avoid him, I began spending my days in fast food restaurants, shopping centers and libraries in far-flung locations on the island, retreating into a literary world. I attempted to save myself by reading and writing in notebooks, where I could still think my own thoughts.
But this “medicine” hadn’t been enough. On an otherwise indistinguishable, grey day, I’d snapped. Since then I’d felt drowned in a dark whirlpool, until this past hour. This halfway house introduced the possibility of a safe environment. Here, I intuited, I might be able to begin to get my feet back on the ground.
“Well, good,” Ronnie said. “We’ll expect you the day after tomorrow.”
“One minor question,” I say. I’m trying to place your accent.”
“Israeli,” Ronnie says.
The last thing I do before leaving the house is to ask to use the phone to call my mother, collect. There, in that humming kitchen, I share this latest development. She, who’d laid some serious “issues” on me during my childhood, has lately been my phone buddy, standing by me during the whole crisis, and I want her to know the good news.
We’re all at the dinner table at Wendover House. I’ve been here two months now. Barbara, the twenty year old with the little-girl pigtails who could be pretty if she didn’t have the crazy look in her eyes, is down at the end of the table acting out again, babbling loudly enough to make everyone in the room uncomfortable: “He touched me, I said no but he did it anyway, I’ll cut his dick off, I’ll use a kitchen knife, I can do it! This food is shit, tastes like shit, shell pasta again? I love my brother, I need him, I can’t live without him, I want to marry him, then I’ll be safe, I…”
“Barbara!” Marty, the counselor, interrupts her sternly. “You need to stop. Stop now! Or else go to your room.” Barbara lowers her voice to a whisper. I can still hear, but now it's an indistinct murmur, possible to ignore.
On my right, tall, thin Robert, with his thick black bangs and perennial smile, is talking, to me, I think, about Lou Reed, whom he idolizes. Robert has Walkman headphones on his ears, as usual. “You should hear this damn album! This guy is outrageous! He gets the 7th Avenue subway in the song! He actually went in there and recorded it, like the damn thing’s an instrument in his band!” Robert is likeable and good-natured, but his conversation is limited. I get the feeling he may have lost some brain cells during his druggie phase.
Mario, across from me, is wolfing down his pasta quietly. He gets up to get seconds. Or thirds. Another seemingly cheerful guy, he has kind of a grey complexion. Probably medicated. Most of the residents are, I think. Mario’s around 30. I try to guess what’s wrong with him. Like Robert, he seems too simple, too innocent for a person his age in the late 1980s. Whimsically, I picture him as a young man from a mafia family, traumatized by witnessing too many murders.
They never tell you what’s wrong with anybody here. Lots of elephants in the room when we gather. The only one I’ve really heard diagnose himself is Irv, the thin, morose 40 year old with whom I have more common interests than anyone else, even a mutual acquaintance. He’s a very sensitive person, whose terror about what will become of him when his 90-year-old parents die has caused him to withdraw from life.
I pull myself away from the table and go downstairs. We’re supposed to socialize after dinner, down here in the TV room. Socializing: the panacea for every mental illness. Sullen Bill is sitting on the sofa watching a movie on Comedy Central. He glares at me and I can almost smell him burning. Had James Dean not already come and gone, had Holden Caulfield not already been written, Bill could’ve blazed those trails. Something intense happened to him, too, but I don’t dare ask.
I hear more tromping on the stairs. Laura’s thick legs appear; then her face confirms her identity. Laura, the overweight girl whom I can tell has also come through some terrible trauma, yet another one who seems heavily medicated. She always has a smile for me, though. And she’s literate, shows me the poetry she writes.
Following her down, with deliberately heavy clomping, is my roommate Chris, a young man with a red crew cut who’s so late-adolescent he could play Wally in a remake of Leave it to Beaver. He’s still another “nice guy” about whose condition I don’t have a clue.
The others, as they finish eating, join us one or two at a time. Now Mario and Chris and Robert are having a belching contest and arm-wrestling over in a corner. Bill has turned the TV all the way up so he can hear. Barbara’s babbling again, standing up next to the sofa in her T-shirt that shows Mickey Mouse propositioning Minnie with “Yo Baby, Yo Baby, Yo Baby, Yo!” A counselor’s even helping Julia, 85 years old and almost totally preoccupied with just standing, sitting, or walking, to get down the stairs.
I have to get out of here.
The day program has turned out to be, in its own way, as stifling as the house. At first I had hopes about it, too. Bill and I are the only ones from the house who go to this “elite” program for people who supposedly have the intellectual capacity for a full recovery and re-entry into society. The first morning, he was asked to show me the bus route. You have to transfer at Victory Boulevard, so it’s slightly complicated. We were together about half an hour. He just stared straight ahead, though, even when we were waiting for the bus.
The program is in another big grey residence. The whole thing’s a little weird. There are only seven of us, just six until recently when Scott, a 20 year-old who’s quickly gotten kind of thick with Bill, came. We take up all the time of two professional therapists and an art therapist who comes twice a week. Someone’s indeed pouring a lot of resources our way.
I was eager to go at my healing until Nancy, the director, with her short, spiky haircut, cut me off the first time I started talking about a real issue in group. Nancy just stopped me in the middle of a sentence. OK, so I should maybe have known that she’d want to protect the virgin ears of pretty Marilee from my soliloquy about my compulsive masturbation—how it’s always followed by an agonizing period of energy depletion that can last two or three days. Marilee, the only real looker in the house, just a year or two out of high school. The first day, I asked, “Were you a cheerleader?” “No—a Twirlah,” she answered in her thick, New York brogue. Belinda, our other female member, is an African-American about 30, nice but heavily drugged.
Even worse than my interrupted monologue was what happened last week. I’d been feeling incredibly jealous of Bill with Marilee. They’ve become best buds and always disappear together at lunchtime. It’s hurt my male pride. I felt I had to bring that up in group, too, my feeling of exclusion, or day program would become too painful to endure.
Even though Nancy looked like she wanted to kill me when she saw where I was going, and Marilee, asked by Nancy if she minded the topic, answered with an exaggerated smile, “Not if you keep it sho-at and sweet”—and even though nothing really changed as a result of my breaking once more the taboo against discussing things up close and personal, I somehow felt less squelched after getting everything out in the open. But Nancy’s renewed glare sort of snuffed out any remaining hope I’d had of the day program ever being any real help. After that, I took it as a place-holder, the necessary price of the roof over my head.
By the way, the next day back at the house, Bill pulled me aside and, talking to me for once, gave me his lowdown about both our prospects with girls like Marilee: “The reality is,” he said, “Is that these chicks are all gettin’ screwed by cops and businessmen. We don’t have a chance!”
My whole sense of “path” that had emerged that first day at Wendover House is in danger, after these two months. In fact it’s practically gone, drowned under floods of chaos and sham. I feel pretty much back to square one. Lord knows how far this tailspin may go…if I don’t do something. But what can I do? Like those nights during my hospitalization, ticking the thoughts sleeplessly away at an apparently insoluble problem, I don’t have a clue.
Exploring the island on the bus last Saturday, I passed an art supplies store in a neighborhood I’d never been in before. On a sudden whim I got off at the next stop, walked back there, and came out with a bag full of materials: a thick pad of 18x24” watercolor paper; both watercolor and acrylic paints; an assortment of brushes; and a round metal palette with little cups. It was just a hunch. When I got back to the house, I pushed the bag way under my bed and wondered if I’d ever use it.
Now as I slip away yet again from the noisy basement, the bag of art stuff comes to mind. I ascend the stairs. It’s very quiet up on the main floors of the house. I go up the next flight, down to Chris’ and my room, and enter. Chris is still down doing his nightly belching with Sal and Robert, thank God, and I bathe in the refreshing silence.
I reach under my bed and pull out the bag. In a couple of minutes, I’ve retrieved an old newspaper down in the living room, and put together a little set-up in the middle of our carpeted floor. It looks curiously shrine-like. The big pad is open to the top blank sheet, a blizzard of white. The little palette-cup is filled with primary colors and white and black, the way my old teacher at the university taught me. Brushes and a cup of water sit there too. Now I pull the pillow off my bed and sit down on it with my legs crossed.
What am I supposed to do now? I’m a “recovering mental patient” at one of the low points of my life. I’ve had creative experiences before: in college, I did an independent study, drawing and painting mandalas; I’ve written stories; written and done illustrations for children’s stories; written songs. In fact, wonder, and expressing it, has been my ticket through life since early adulthood. But now is now. I’ve been a basket case for months.
I try to meditate, staring into the white page as if wanting it to tell me something. It doesn’t. I concentrate some more, and I’m not sure if it’s intuitively or merely impulsively that I pick up a medium-sized brush, dip into the red paint, and make a blotch in the center of the page. The mark isn’t big, but it’s exceedingly bright, contrasting with the white expanse.
The red and the white seem to interact, and I feel a force field. Or is it my imagination? I decide to accept the irrational, that the color, the field are indeed “guiding” me, telling me where to put the next blotch. It takes a different shape. Soon, I’m mixing an earthy brown in another palette-cup, dabbing the page with that color. I start making staccato marks, modifying the mix periodically with more yellow or red. I still have no idea where I’m going. I pull myself back for a moment and look at what’s accumulated on the page. Suddenly, I flash: it looks like a map, some kind of abstract map. Needs a boundary. I pick up a calligraphy brush and create a large black circle.
Three hours later, I look down again at what’s emerged. In the center of the page is a stylized, figurative mandala. At its hub is a radiant sun. Inside the black circumference, city buildings face inward, converging upon that sun.
Outside the circle, the abstract pattern still resembles some kind of map…“the suburbs”? Beyond that, towards the four corners of the page, are simple wilderness images: hill, desert, mountain, forest. A brilliant lapis sky unites them.
I’ve been hypnotized by my own creation as it worked its way out from somewhere inside me, until it attained this “objective” existence on a page. As I gaze at it now, I’m pulled in strongly by the center sun. Then I feel myself radiating outward. I marvel at the piece, and at what just happened: my dissolving into a process of creation, which has resulted in this work of art that no one will ever duplicate. The funny thing is, when I come back to myself, I have to think to remember, “I’m a mental patient in a halfway house.” I don’t feel anything wrong inside me! If this experience tonight wasn’t a fluke, then it’s not me that’s off; it’s the surroundings I’ve fallen into, the past six months or so. As I continue to bask in feelings of joy and accomplishment, I begin to plan an immediate future of similar nightly experiments.
I realize that I'll have to patiently put up with all my external circumstances. I’m in no position to even think of anything beyond them, until I know more.
Every night for the past two weeks I’ve slipped to my room, prepared my materials like a ritual magician, and ended up after several hours gazing upon a new world that’s emerged on a page from inside me. Almost more startling, each of these worlds seems distinct. Where do they all come from? One night’s painting expresses nostalgia for childhood. It shows a boy looking into a world of his imagination, depicted as a fancy paddlewheel steamboat sailing down a river like the Mississippi I grew up near. Another night, it’s a pair of huge, outspread hands containing fields, orchards, mountains, sun and sky. Still another night produces an ancient, white-haired man with wisdom in his eyes, overlooking a sleeping youthful figure.
I don’t even fully understand all the images, but I feel their power. This daily experience of being an archetypal “ferryman,” bringing original images from unconscious realms and fixing
them in form—in this case, paint—so that others can share them, is making me a more confident person. The creative reservoir has proven itself not to be fickle. It’s indeed been there whenever
I’ve sought it. Of course, I’m humble and grateful. I literally felt like nothing, very recently. It’s literally redeemed me.
The real challenge continues to be not the “art time,” but rather making it through the uninspired rounds of the day without antagonizing Nancy or Ronnie until, in the night hours I re-enter my inner sanctum and access once again the life-giving magic. But I’ve been doing that passably well, I think.
Tonight, I’ve just finished the daily ritual of preparing the setting with the afore-mentioned priestly sense. I’m sitting on my pillow in that breathless moment, poised to pick up a brush, when there's a knock on the door. Chris wouldn’t knock, so I’m puzzled.
“Just a second,” I call, and rise carefully, walking to the door and opening it a foot. Ronnie is standing there, and now I see the warrior, whom I’ve heard taught weaponry in the Israeli army, in the way his face is set.
“It’s been brought to my attention, Mr. Markley, that you are spending too much time alone,” he begins sternly. “You are isolating from the others. This will not help your recovery. You are required to socialize. I think you know…”
It surges up from so deep inside me there’s no more censoring it than there is censoring a volcano. I positively erupt with righteous anger: “Who, just who, do you think you are?” I open the door wide, moving away from it toward the room’s center. Ronnie comes in and stands a few feet away. “Who do you think you are to presume you know so well what I need?” I demand. He has the power to put me out on the street. But I know if I back down, all is lost.
“I am not isolating,” I continue. “I am painting! Who said that endless socializing and rubbing shoulders with a roomful of disturbed people will produce some miracle of healing?” I pause, then continue. “Do you say that? Drop your damn textbook! You know as well as I do that it will not!”
I can’t help my tone. These words are escaping from me. They’re not an act of will from my personality. They come from some deeper place.
But that’s no guarantee he’ll listen. I like my housemates, but I simply refuse to acquiesce and waste my entire life “mingling.”
I show Ronnie the work from my cardboard portfolio: the child-nostalgia, the symbolic map, the wise old man, the whole array. I know he can assert his authority. One day a few weeks ago, he somehow got the idea that I wanted to have sex with Barbara, and he warned me in no uncertain terms.
But now, suddenly, he looks like a big child. I’ve never seen him this way. The warrior appears completely disarmed. His swords have been beaten into plowshares. His eyes are clear.
“I understand what you’re saying,” he says quietly, after looking again at me and the paintings I’m still holding up. After another brief pause for looking, he adds, “Yes, you know, I think you’re right. Please forgive me for disturbing you.”
“I do,” I say, still in shock from his turnabout.
Ronnie quietly backs his way out of the room, smiles at me, and pulls the door shut in a quiet, respectful way. I breathe deeply for a few minutes. Then I begin to paint.
It’s early July. I’m about to move out of this place next week, to an 11th floor apartment in a high-rise, with a single roommate, the next stage in the system. Frankly, though, I’m starting to think I may have had enough of the system.
In the present moment, however, while I’m still here at Wendover House, I’m making good use of the place. I’m standing in the under-used living room where 13 of my paintings, matted and framed, are sitting on the floor, leaning against the front wall. In my hands I’m holding the last, bending down the metal clips on the back of the frame. This one is a colorful portrait of a sultry-looking lady I sketched as she dawdled at the ferry terminal one afternoon. Ronnie, who now displays on his office wall a color-Xerox I gave him of Manhattan’s skyline nestled within the petals of a lotus flower, has given his blessing to my using the room as a staging area.
“Hey, I hope I’m not late!” a voice bellows in from the hallway. Scott, from the day program, has volunteered to drive the paintings over to the AMB Gallery in Hoboken, where they’re going to be hung as part of a four-artist show.
“No, Scott, perfect timing,” I reply. “You want to go up and get Bill?” I was stunned when my former antagonist, sullen Bill, was so impressed with the portfolio I showed him a month or so ago that he didn’t have a snide or even a clever retort. He just kept nodding as I pulled up paintings, and when I finished, said only “wow.”
After the initial “miracle painting", which in the show bears the title, “City/Self Mandala,” the finished pieces started to pile up, an average of one a night for more than a month. The pile was getting messy, so one Saturday I took the ferry and subway over to Pearl Art in Chinatown and bought the portfolio to keep them safely in. When that too was getting filled, I called an artist friend to ask if he’d take a look. We met at a pub in the Village and he, too, nodded and nodded. When he’d gone through everything, he said, “You know, James Cox has opened an art gallery over in Hoboken. Ann Weichberger is the manager. I think she might like these enough to show some of them.”
I got permission to go to Hoboken after day program one day, missing dinner at the house—ferry to Manhattan, then a train from the PATH Terminal under the World Trade Towers. Hoboken was in the process of major gentrification. I found the gallery on the main street. Ann too had nodded as she perused my portfolio, and when she’d finished, told me about the group show coming up and invited me to join. She stipulated that everything had to be properly matted and framed, and that it would cost me a couple hundred bucks to do that. I made another trip to Pearl in Chinatown and ended up choosing silver metal frames with mats that would complement the individual pieces. I did all the framing and matting myself, right here.
As I place the last finished picture with the others, I hear running on the stairs. Tall, thin Scott, a little puppy-doggish in a nice way, and behind him Bill, bulldog-like as usual, enter the room. Bill appears entranced when he sees the paintings all dressed up for display. After a long gaze, he says, “Man, you’ve really accomplished something!”
I step back and try to look through his eyes at the array of bold color and playful, imaginative form. That Bill, with his wounded, sensitive temperament, has risen out of his own secret preoccupations to say what he just said leaves me feeling a success even before getting to the gallery. Of course, it was the experience of creating these works from nothing that connected with the living spirit within me and brought me back from the dead. But it helps, it really helps, when others confirm the value I feel in my work. What else is there for a human being to want than such bridges to hearts and minds? I can only wish something similar for Bill.
Whatever happens at the gallery, and wherever I end up living when I leave here, I feel I’m walking now on pretty solid ground. I’ve found my purpose, the thing I’m alive to do. I’ve registered for classes at the New York Art Students League in Manhattan, and will begin the daily commute as soon as I’m free of the restrictions the house imposes. But in a way, that’s secondary. I discovered the gift within. Wherever I exercise it, that’s where it will remain.
Bill and Scott begin lifting and carrying the paintings, cradling them delicately as they would little babies, down to Scott’s old station wagon. I carefully pile up several more and carry them down the steps, joining my two friends. One more trip and the loading is complete.
It’s a sunny day. I look back at Wendover House, remembering the winter day when I first walked up those steps, that day when a fragile path seemed to open. And now, another journey is beginning.
"The Life You Save May Be Your Own" (from THE MINDFUL WORD)
"Adieu, Rivendell" : Leaving God to find God
The protagonist leaves Meher Baba's "Home in the West," the Meher Spiitual Center (a 500-acre wildlife preserve and retreat facility right on the Atlantic) and the surrounding community in Myrtle
Beach, South Carolina. After 6 years in residence, he feels "not ripe enough" to remain. "Leaving God to find God," he sets up a life in his home town, and discovers he must take a number of
self-facing steps. He is stunned to find the Indian adage, "Take one step toward God and He will take ten steps toward you" actually coming true in his life.
Read "Adieu, Rivendell"
"Coming to Baba: My 43-year Romance with Meher Baba" from The Mindful Word. An essay describing my first, totally unexpected experience of Meher Baba's Love in a friend's advertising agency office high in a Chicago skyscraper, and how I happened to be there that day.
Read "Coming to Baba"
"Happy Re-Birthday to Me: a personal essay" from The Mindful Word. Written on the 37th anniversary of the second of two major transformative experiences, my meeting with Ram Dass* (aka Richard Alpert) in Oklahoma City, OK, in 1976. My life had become frozen due to shame about "things in childhood) I could not talk about." I left the room two hours later—shining
Read "Happy Re-Birthday to Me"
* I felt the Love I call "Meher Baba" working "through Ram Dass" during our entire period of association. Many years later, I was able to document that Baba had actually said of Richard Alpert, way back in the '60s, "Richard is Mine."
Through repeated sincere prayers it is possible to effect an exit from the otherwise inexorable working out of the law of karma. The forgiveness asked from God
evokes from Him His inscrutable grace, which alone can give new direction to the inexorable karmic determination. — Meher Baba