Authors: Roland Merullo
Every race, every tribe, every nation, every people from antiquity to the silicon age has chosen certain days to be more special than others. Whether it's Easter, Yom Kippur, Buddha's birthday, or the Fourth of July, we seem to have some innate sense of the importance of celebrating anniversaries. I think it keeps us from getting lost in a run of days that speed by, faster and faster, as the years move beneath us. Maybe we understand instinctively that we should stop and party every once in a whileâdance, eat without restraint, have a parade, blow out candles on a cake, shoot off fireworks, give presents. When Jeannie was alive I always tried to take a vacation day on her birthdayâand on mine. Like Rinpoche's people, we believed it was important to mark the day we'd come into this life. The celebrant would have a special homemade breakfast (corned beef hash and home fries for me, eggs Benedict for her), then we'd play a game of tennis together, or go for a long walk in the Bronxville Reservation, or we'd drive up the Hudson and have lunch at a bistro we loved, a little place called Gian's in a stone house not far from the river. In the evening there would be another special meal, and then presents and cake. We made the same effort for the kids, of course, even more so: bowling parties, sleepovers, trips to the City to see a show or a sporting event. The one birthday I'd had since Jeannie's passing had been bittersweet. Tash and Anthony made a fuss, took me out for an expensive dinner, showered me with gifts I didn't need, told me how much they loved me, what a great father I was, and so on. But naturally it wasn't even close to the same.
On that August morningâmaybe it had something to do with the meditation, the mystery, and the hilarity on the sand dunes the night beforeâI awoke early and felt that I wanted to mark the day in something like the way Jeannie and I used to mark it. The clock read 6:48, and I saw that Rinpoche was already up and gone. I sat in a chair, facing out the window as he'd recommended, and started my day with a deep and quiet meditation. A settling of the monkey mind, a first-class peace. I always ended these sessions with a prayer for my late wife and children, for Seese and Rinp and Shelsa, and I did that again, feeling lucky to have or to have had such people in my life. Next I walked across the small distance between the motel and the main building and soaked for ten minutes in each of the healing pools. The morning was perfectly still, already warm, the mountain air bursting with light. The other inhabitants of the Joyful Journey were still asleep, busy in the breakfast room, or off somewhere saying their morning prayers or taking their morning exercise. Back in the room I took a freezing shower, standing there for as long as I could, breath coming in gasps. A contemplative shave. Shorts, a jersey, running shoes with no socksâmy usual summer uniform. It seemed to me that my ample belly had shrunk another inch, and in the breakfast room I noticed that I was losing my taste for the sweet stuff. The muffins didn't tempt me. I had bagel with butter, coffee with Coffee-mate, and I enjoyed the paintings on the wallâby one Rita Beraultâof Mary and the baby Jesus.
I was sitting at an outdoor table, admiring the distant mountains, and keeping my phone in view in case one of the kids called, when Rinpoche came striding along the path, beaming. “Happy birthday, man!” he said, squeezing me almost to death in his powerful arms. “How you makin' out?”
“Making out fine,” I said, and I gave him the rundown on the morning's activities.
“Rinpoche's present for you is one massage,” he said, and when he saw the look on my face he laughed and added, “from the woman here. Anna. Not me, man! She's the best!”
Which turned out to be true. The massage room was just off the main building, ten or twelve feet square, and the therapist, Anna by name, was hardworking, skilled, attentive. Toe to scalp she worked me over, telling me about a healing business she and her boyfriend, Walt, had started, a combination of massage therapy, counseling, and what sounded like positive thinking.
“You should open franchises all over America,” I told her. “The country needs a little healing.”
“A lot,” she said.
She punished the tight muscles of my upper back. “I've read every single one of Rinpoche's books, you know. Walt and I nearly fainted when we saw him here yesterday. We didn't want to bother him so we didn't go up to him or anything, but, man, he has a presence, doesn't he?”
“He thinks the world of you, you know. Told me it's your birthday. Said he wanted a special treatment for his good friend and brother-in-law. He seems to really be set on the idea of your visiting Crestone, though I'm not sure how much you'll like it there. You seem like a pretty straight arrow.”
“Very straight arrow,” I said. “Too straight of an arrow, probably. What's Crestone? Sounds like Muzak that gets played while you're brushing your teeth or something.”
“Ha,” she said. “Funny. I'm surprised you never heard of it. It's a town that's set back a ways off 17, just south of here. In against the mountains. The story is that years ago some politician diverted a lot of water away from Colorado, and so, to try to stay in office, he had his wife give away all these plots of land they owned, near what is now Crestone. And the people that settled there, well . . . I really don't want to say anything else about it. It's special, I'll say that. Different. Colorado's a funny state. We have our Crestones and our Boulders and then we have these other types who think global warming and evolution are conspiracies intended to take away their livelihood. I'm Colorado born and raised and I tell you it's freakin' bipolar here. Even the landscape, in case you haven't noticed. The biggest mountains, and then the freakin' flattest stretches you'll ever want to see. Half the people claim Spanish blood, in these parts, anyway. Half of them are white ranchers. And the other two halves are Indians and people like me and Walt, old hippies, alternative types.”
She told me to turn over and then said, “That's four halves, I just realized, but you know what I mean.”
“You're a city guy.”
“New York now. Born and raised in North Dakota.”
“Hah. Let's talk bipolar, shall we? There was another piece in the paper today about organized crime moving into the oil fields. For years and years it was the only place you could probably go in the whole freakin' country and not worry about being mugged. Now, in certain parts, it's some kind of weird hell. The Wild freakin' West all over again, except worse. It's all greed. Rinpoche paid for you by the way,” she said, finishing with a gentle massage of the scalp. “So you're all set. Don't tip me, either. You don't know what a blessing it is to even ever
a guy like that in the flesh, never mind talk to him for five minutes. At the end, he took hold of both my hands and looked into my eyes and gave me a blessing and, I tell you, I felt like I was gonna get pregnant or something just from that.”
“Name the baby Volya,” I said, “if it's a boy.”
“Hah. We don't want Walt to get the wrong idea. It wasn't sexual, but man what a charge!”
“Great massage, really. I've had a bunch of them and that was first rate.”
“Thanks. Peaceful year to you.”
When I was dressed and on my feet again I found Rinpoche waiting for me in the courtyard, still beaming. “Good, man?”
“Excellent, thank you. That's the perfect gift. It's been the perfect day so far.”
“Let me show a place,” he said, and he led me along a narrow footpath that ran between the office and the yurts. We walked out into the desert flora: rabbit brush, sage, prickly pear cactus. A few hundred yards and we came to a kind of shrine, four small stone benches set in a square with the remains of a campfire in the middle and miniature cairns all around. “We sit a few minutes now. Special place.”
It was, too. We faced out across the long, slanted plainâthe very definition of high desertâto the Sangre de Cristos. It was a painting in earth tones and blues, the air so still and quiet it absorbed even the engine noises from the big rigs on 17. For some reason, sitting there, I had the clear sense that my life had grown too complicated. There was another twinge of thought about selling the Bronxville house, maybe selling the car, living in a totally different way. A twinge, I say.
“Now, listen me,” Rinpoche said, as he'd done the night before. “Now in this meditationânot too long!âyou touch the place you come from, okay? That place, the you-spirit was there before you born, Otto, still there now, waiting there after you die, okay? Now you learn to touch that place, and when the time comes you die, you remember that place, and dying not so hard for you, okay? This is your true self you going to touch now.”
“I'm saying some things and then nothing and in the nothing you touch your true big self, okay?”
“Listen me. Close the eyes. Far up is your father spirit and mother spirit, like another pieces of you. You send up a prayer to them now, and they send back the blessing, like a, like the satellite for the phones, okay? You feel them there now. Tasha and Anthony are not with you now, yes, but in another way always with you, see? Their big self and Otto's big self. Wery close. Now you feel that and you rest in your mind for a little while with Rinpoche.”
He fell silent. I noticed he hadn't mentioned Jeannie and I wondered if the great secret was that he somehow knew she'd left me now, left all of us, moved on to some other dimension we wouldn't touch again for a millennium, if ever.
I turned away from the sadness of that. I worked with the satellite image for a few minutes then let it go. Too technical for me, too modern. There were no such things as spiritual satellites. But there was for me, intermittently at least, exactly what Rinpoche had promised: the sense that I did have an eternal self, that a piece of my consciousness resided elsewhere, outside the grasp of time. For those minutes, my body, my personality, my cares here, felt so purely temporary. Real, yes. A piece of my essence, of course. But I actually
in those moments that a piece of me was still and always there, and whatever happened here, important as it might be, all passed.
That, I have to say, is an absolutely terrible description of the feeling I had during that meditation. Awful, really. But the best I can seem to do. Maybe I should just say this: It was comforting. It seemed real. For a while it left me unworried and unafraid.
When we were done, when, by the rustle of Rinpoche's robe and a certain kind of exhalation of breath, I knew we'd come to the end of the session, I opened my eyes on that marvelous vista and saw him peering at me, examining me with the gaze of a concerned doctor. I heard him say, “good,” as if I'd passed a rigorous physical.
“You welcome. Now Crestone.”
I was in what I thought of as a “birthday mood,” meaning the day had a shine to it, a kind light. I was fifty-two and that seemed, for a while at least, as we packed up and left the room at Joyful Journey, like the prime of life.
We went south toward Mosca, along the same narrow, shoulderless road we'd traveled twice the night before, but the turnoff for Crestone was only about a third of the way to the turnoff for the Great Sand Dunes. Just there, just opposite the ninety-degree left, stood a building that had caught my eye on the earlier drives.
COFFEE AND ART,
the sign advertised, but the name of the operation was Mirage Trading Company. My kind of place. Before we even went through the front door we could smell the roasting beans.
The art was good, but it was the coffee that drew me, coffee prepared by a man who cared about his coffee. John was a transplanted Long Islander with striking blue eyes and a lingering trace of that wonderful accent. He'd settled out here, he said, “because of a girl.” He talked to us about the land, about the friction between farmers who grew grain for the big beer companies and used a lot of water doing so, and ranchers, who wanted the water for other purposes. The ice cubes in his iced coffee were frozen cubes of coffee, a nice touch, I thought, and one that suggested I might bring up the subject of food. I almost said,
Today's my birthday and I was hoping for something special for lunch,
but I thought it might make me sound as picky about food as I actually am, so I went the diplomatic route: “You know, the meat around here is really good, but I have to say the food options we've encountered have been a little . . . limited. We're heading over to Crestone. Can you recommend a place there?”
“Crestone's something else,” he said, and there was a touch of the same tone Anna had used, a hint of some Crestonic mystery. “Try the Bliss CafÃ©. That's your best bet.”
We turned left off the main drag and drove a road not dissimilar to the one that had led to the Dunes. It was parallel, in fact, if a bit shorter and much more crooked, and it wound this way and that between scraggly rangeland before making one last turn into the 1960s. Everything was different in Crestone. To begin with, there were trees.
The town itself was a ragged grid of streets, with small wooden houses and a handful of modest shops on one commercial corner. We drove right past the Bliss CafÃ© without seeing it, and it was only with the help of three young men in dreadlocks that we eventually retraced our route and found our lunch spot.
“Looks like a house,” Rinpoche said, and it did indeed. Up a set of stairs we marched, past a boy, probably ten, who might have been the lost brother of the kids in the trailer in northwest Colorado except that he was punching people on his phone's video game rather than in person, and the people weren't his father. I said hello; he ignored me. Inside was a room with five tables and a small L-shaped bar. The door to the kitchen had a heart cut out of it. At all but one of the tables lounged people, ranging from young to very young, who seemed to be auditioning for a play set in Berkeley, summer of '68. They slumped about in postures that combined attitudes of laziness and resistance, as if the world surrounding them was all wrong, offensive, corrupt, ruinous, and they were wearily toting the truth through it, day after day. A mother sat with two children, one in a kind of sack at her breast, the other leaning against her and picking his nose. She was involved in an earnest conversation with a young couple, both in dirty clothes and backpacks.
Perhaps I'm being harsh. No doubt I am. Growing up when I did, and where I did, in 1970s North Dakota, graduating as I did from UND in 1983, I was one-half of one generation too late for all the marijuana and easy sex (though I have to say neither was totally absent from my college experience), a bit too late for SDS marches and walkouts, too late to have friends who went to die in the jungles, too late for the summer of assassinations and the era of presidents resigning in disgrace. No, ours were the Ronald Reagan years when very, very few people protested against, say, the invasion of Grenada, or went there to die.
Still, in part because my sister had managed, even in the eighties, to live the sixties lifestyle, I felt a familiarity with that decade. In fact, she'd never stopped living itâthe long dresses, the dietary fads, the insistence on building a life in opposition to the mainstream. Stepping into Bliss, I felt all over again how strange it was that, given her alternative leanings, Cecelia should have ended up with Volya Rinpoche. For all his quirks and eccentricity, he was really the last thing from that kind of alternative.
All this in mind, my birthday glimmer fading by the second, Rinpoche and I occupied the empty table and were soon handed menus by a thoroughly tattooed young woman with an efficient air. I suspected she owned the place. I began to hope that she was someone with radical sympathies who nevertheless recognized the value of making a good living. May God forgive me.
I studied the menu. Vegetarian pizza. Pasta with pesto. Spinach salad. And then something called Frank's Mom's Pasta, which looked like it might have potential. The danger in ordering pasta in a place inhabited by few or no actual Italian Americans is that one runs the risk of receiving cooked-to-death penne in a Campbell's tomato soup sauce. I'd seen it happen. Once or twice on business trips, before I learned my lesson, I'd ordered pasta in such places, ended up taking a bite or two, then left the rest of the dish uneaten, filling my belly with bread, butter, and beer. So it was a risk to go with pasta in Crestone, but it occurred to me that maybe Crestone was actually an Italian nameâlike Capone or Calzoneâand the “Frank's Mom” part of the dish gave me added hope. So it was Frank's Mom's Pasta for me and the spinach salad for my companion. We waited. I worked to get over my distaste for the whole atmosphere but at least I understood now what had been in the voices of Anna and John, and I suspected that Crestone had been Cecelia's idea, not Rinpoche's. Probably she had friends here from the old days. These friends were growing a little weed out back, counting the hours until it could be legally sold. They didn't watch sports on TV, probably didn't own TVs. They brought their children up to wear long dresses or tattered pants, sandals, headbands. They eschewed shaving, men and women both, as well as makeup, cologne, and the two major parties. They drove cars that ran on used vegetable oil and smelled like it, too.
I had a whole riff going. It was only the meditative path that saved me from a steep descent into hardcore nastiness. I realized what I was doing, saw the run of thoughts, the dirty little stream of sardonic comparison, saw how I was just trying to put myself above the Crestonians in order to validate my own way of being.
“You know,” I said to Rinpoche, very quietly, “these are true hippies. This is what the sixties looked like in this country, in certain places, in most colleges.”
“Like Cecelia,” he said, which more or less took the air out of my balloon.
“I think she's a little more . . . mainstream now.”
He was looking at me.
“I'll be honest, Rinpoche, I feel like they live
to something rather than with any ideas of their own. Again, not my sister. But it's like the people here are saying everything's wrong in the world that surrounds them. Cars that run on gas, wrong. People who eat steak, wrong. Women who shave their armpits and legs, wrong. I'm wrong to think this, I know, butâ”
“You know these people?”
“No, of course not. I just get a feeling from them. Even their posture speaks volumes.”
He saw right through me, of course. He kept his eyes on me, kindly enough, for a few seconds, and then from the magical robe he produced a pencil. “You have paper?”
I found a credit card receipt in my wallet and handed it over. I watched him draw a circle on the blank back side, watched the circle become a clock face, numbers, no hands. In the center he made a smaller circle, the size of a shirt button. “Look now,” he said, in the tone of voice he used when giving one of his “wessons.” It's not easy to describe that tone because it was a mix of absolute certainty on the one hand and a species of gentleness on the other. It put me in mind of our mathematics teacher, senior year of high school, a mustachioed World War II veteran named John Speinecke. Mr. Speinecke was a math genius and he passed on the various strategies for solving problems with a certainty that made it all seem so straightforward and irrefutable. But at the same time he taught us as if he understood the torment math could bring to certain minds. Compassionate confidence is the way I thought of it, and there was, in Rinpoche, that same blend. “Look now, Otto.” He placed the tip of the pencil on the central circle. “Maybe this is the enlightenment, okay?” He moved the pencil tip up to the number twelve. “Maybe this is monk, see?” He drew a line from twelve back to the center, where he made the v point of a small arrow. “Monk goes to enlightenment this way, from this, how you say, angel, yes?”
“Maybe best angel, maybe not, but this is the monk's way to go.”
Next he put the pencil tip onto the number one. “Maybe the good father or mother go to enlightenment from this way.” He drew another line into the center.
Then from number two, “Maybe good sports player come this way.”
From number three, “Maybe president or queen this way.”
From number four, “Maybe wery poor or wery sick person this way.”
From number five, “Maybe the hippie this way, see?”
“Anybody have the chance, Otto. Maybe some ways are easier for some people but maybe some hippies go to enlightenment and some monks not, okay? Maybe some fathers go and some fathers don't go. Maybe some sports people, how you say it, too much of themselves.”
“Too full of themselves.”
“Like that. And other sports people okay, wery good concentration, wery much can go past the pain, see? If you hurt people, if you make what the Christians say is âsin,' then wery, wery hard to go to here, to this place, because,” he scratched up the white space between the number 6 and the central circle, making curlicues, turning the pencil sideways, shading in the white, “because now you have the mess inside your mind, your soul, see?”
“Okay then. So maybe you are number one, the good father in this life. Not so smart if you worry about number five or number three, okay? Just do the best number one job you can do, best father, best brother-and-waw, best uncle, best man now fifty-two years, okay?”
“Message received. Lesson humbly learned. Thank you.”
At that moment the pasta and salad were served and I began, from the first bite, to give thanks to Frank's mother, who had clearly gone to enlightenment from the standpoint of a great cook, which was number ten or eleven on the clockface, and had clearly passed on her talents to her son. Olive oil, garlic, and spicesâsmall and perfectly balanced miracles in and of themselves, but the remarkable thing was that the pasta was properly cooked. (Al dente, as the Italians say, which means “to the tooth.” “Way too crunchy” would have been my mother's translation. Unlike my companion, who claimed to speak eleven languages, some more fluently than others, I wasn't much of a linguist. However, over the course of my editing career, I'd learned a few dozen foreign phrases, all having to do with food. Au jus, au poivre, al dente, coq au vin, puttanesca.) I wondered if the chef had made a mistake, been in a rush, taken the penne out of the pot three minutes earlier than he or she usually did, or if the owners of Bliss CafÃ©âFrank, perhapsâactually understood al dente, and had instructed his employees to err on the crunchy side. God knew. In any case, it was an excellent birthday surprise. Rinpoche enjoyed his spinach salad with cranberries and walnuts and gave me a taste. “Wine you want?” he asked. “Little beer?”
“Tonight maybe. We still have some driving to do. I had the thought, after our Sand Dunes adventure, that you might like to see some other national parks. There are some great ones not too far from here.”
“Once the Great Canyon I saw.”
“Grand, not great. When?”
He waved his fork. “Had a speakings in New Arizona. Last year.”
“Celia was driving. Rinpoche doesn't like the flying.”
“I remember. All those times you came out to see Jeannie you drove.”
“Or the train.”
“I miss her on this day. She always made it special, as I did for her on her birthday. I miss the kids, Seese, Shelsa. Don't you?”
A strange twist of smile played for a moment on his features. Who could read that amazing face? Square, brown-eyed, a rather large nose and ears, but it was the musculature that gave it character: His cheeks, forehead, eye sockets, chin, and jaw were composed of what seemed a hundred sinews that could assume a thousand shapes. The smile might have been one of sadness or mischief, or the Buddha's tight grin of pure understanding. With Rinpoche, who could ever know?