Crone Chronicles, Spring Equinox 2000, No. 42, pp. 25-29
by William R. Stimson
My sister and I took very different paths. In New York City, I'd left my career behind and was trying to become a writer. Back in Florida, MaryAnn didn't see that I had any talent and so didn't understand why I was doing what I was with my life. She met a guy who drove a bread truck. Greg and her played tennis together. They got married. They went back to school. He became a social worker, she a nurse. They moved to South Carolina and had a baby boy.
I was reading a lot of J. Krishnamurti in those days and wrote her long complicated letters about the nature of reality. She wrote back about the simple events of her everyday life. Once I pointed out to her the kinds of things that occupied her attention.
"Those 'kinds of things', as you call them," she objected hotly -- "are my life!"
I went on to discover about schizophrenia in C.G. Jung, R.D. Laing and Alexander Lowen. I detailed to my sister the profiles of what I recognized as a sickness in our family line. This was very important for me to understand. I kept a pad of paper by the mattress on the floor where I slept and recorded my dreams every morning when I awoke. Then I spent many hours every day analyzing them deeply. When my sister phoned, I'd reveal to her the things I was finding out about our mother and father and our early childhood.
"All those things happened a long time ago," my sister cut me off at one point when I was trying to tell her something I'd discovered about our father from a dream. "Greg says you are living too much in the past," she informed me.
Greg spent all his spare time in front of the TV watching football games. I didn't see why my sister made him her expert on how to live life. He certainly wasn't mine. I had left a scientific career behind and was trying my hand at something creative that I wasn't very gifted at. There were things in me that I needed to say, that cried out to be said. And yet I was at pains to develop any talent for writing. It seemed hopeless. At one point it struck me the problem wasn't with the writing but with me. If I could only just change 'me', the writing would come on its own. I set out to develop myself. I decided to see and be who and what I really was. Then, I figured, something worthwhile would emerge in my writing. I banked everything on this premise and invested years and years and years living in a way that my sister thought was an utter waste of my life.
My sister's life flourished. Her little boy was growing up. She and Greg both got good jobs. They bought a house in the suburbs. My life fell progressively apart, bit by bit, until there wasn't anything left anymore to call a life. I figured I'd pretty well ruined myself, not realizing that I had accomplished exactly what I set out to do. When the writing eventually returned, it wasn't coming from one of those false constructs I'd slapped together along the way and mistaken for myself. Those had abraded away. In trying to find what my problem was, and the problem of my family, I'd read right through the literature on schizophrenia and came bursting out the other side, into the psychology of creativity and religion.
Around this time I began taking kung fu and doing Zen meditation. I wasn't reading novels. I wasn't reading short stories. Over the many years, what I came to read the most was the literature of enlightenment. A pivotal point was Thomas Merton's book "Mystics and Zen Masters." To my great surprise, I discovered there was a religion akin to Zen inside the dead shell of Christianity. This I had never suspected. I began hunting down books by the Christian mystics -- Saint Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Marguerite Porete. I was flabbergasted by what I found. I read my way through Evelyn Underhill's massive tome "Mysticism" and began for the first time to understand who and what I was and why my life had taken the course it had.
MaryAnn and Greg became dissatisfied with their suburban house. They sold it and built a new and bigger one for themselves on a beautiful lot out in the woods. Color pictures of the new house arrived in the mail with my sister's letters, along with the pictures of her son growing up that she always included. She invested heavily in flower bulbs which she planted under the trees all around the house.
I couldn't explain my life to her and, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't make hers seem sensible to me. The schism between us became more and more rigidified. Although we were close, there was absolutely no connection. At one point she insisted upon coming up and paying me a visit at a time when it wasn't suitable for me. She brushed my objections aside and appeared at my door with her suitcases. In the few days that she stayed, there was no communication between us whatsoever. I took her to see the movie "Jesus of Montreal" that had touched me so deeply. She fell asleep in the theatre. I sat there watching the film myself as she snored softly next to me. On the way back to my apartment she complained about her joints and about pains in her body. I accused her of having the mindframe of someone much older than she was.
A few weeks after she left, I learned she and her husband were splitting up. I realized for the first time, she'd needed to talk to me and that's why she'd come. She had been trying to save her marriage. I'd been so busy defending the way I lived, I hadn't noticed. Her husband went off with another woman. MaryAnn gave him the house. She and her son moved into a condo. From there her life began to slowly and progressively disintegrate and she and I began falling back into contact. Her phone calls became more and more strange. I grew concerned for her. Homeless youths she'd met casually at a shopping mall moved in with her and her son. At one point a whole rock band was living there in that apartment. They were all drinking, smoking pot, taking LSD. She was scandalizing her neighbors in the condo.
This went on for a while until which point I was informed by a third party that my sister had lost her job at the hospital. Then MaryAnn herself informed me she couldn't keep up her payments on the condo. The bank was foreclosing.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Well," she replied, "They can't evict us for six months."
It seemed to me the same thing was happening to her that had happened to our mother -- this was the family sickness rearing its ugly head again.
The phone calls with my sister became more and more bizarre. "I'm on anti-psychotic medication," she revealed in passing at one point.
"Why are you on that?" I blurted.
"To prevent myself from committing suicide," she replied. "I've been diagnosed manic-depressive."
"Who diagnosed you?" I demanded. She seemed to me to have no knowledge of these things but rather to just accept the most mediocre medical authority on faith.
From then on, suicide was always a topic she brought up in our phone conversations. She bought a computer and went on the Internet, ranging far and wide. She made contact with other types like herself -- suicidal. When I was at work, doing graphics on the computer, I would get e-mails from her. Always, she mentioned suicide. I knew perfectly well that people who threaten to commit suicide do commit it.
I called my brother. He held himself aloof from the whole affair.
"We've got to do something!" I insisted.
"I have no intention of doing anything," he said dryly.
I was on my own. I was the only one alarmed.
At the time I was holding down a part time office job in the evenings. At work one night as I labored away on the computer, an e-mail arrived from my sister that was in some undefinable way qualitatively different from the others. "I am having a full-blown mental breakdown and I am going to kill myself," she wrote. I knew this was it. She was going to do it.
It was the stupidity of the whole thing that got to me. What I felt was anger. I shot back a hard-hitting e-mail. "MaryAnn," I began, confronting her outright, "It may be you're right. You're having a mental breakdown like you say; you've got the family sickness just like mother had it before you. That may be the case. Yes. And you can go ahead and pop yourself off if you want and get back at all of us for not being there for you. That's fine, if that's what you want to do. Go ahead. We can't stop you."
These words had just come out of nowhere. I didn't know where I was going with this e-mail; the keyboard rattled away. "But I would like to suggest another possibility that maybe you haven't considered. It's just possible you're not having a mental break-down at all but a mental break-up. You're not losing your mind but gaining it. You're going up to a higher level and you don't know what to do because it is all so strange to you. You're breaking out of the mindframe you've been stuck in for so long. It's frightening because you have no way to conceptualize it. You can't understand what's happening to you because you keep seeing it in terms of something it's not. What if you're not going crazy, MaryAnn? What if you're going sane?"
"If this is the case," I ended my e-mail, "then suicide would be the wrong option."
I shot off the e-mail and continued with my work. It was a hectic night in the office. Everybody was coming at me with work and they all wanted it done immediately. When I got home I was exhausted and went right to bed. I wasn't sure I would ever see my sister again.
The next day the phone rang. It was MaryAnn. "I got your e-mail," she began. She sounded different.
I waited to see what she would say next.
"I went walking out onto the golf course this morning," she continued. "I thought I'd find a quiet spot and meditate, like you do." She paused a second. "I sat down on a rock," she went on. "But the rock was alive and it was speaking to me."
I started to say something but she cut me off. She had something she needed to tell me. "There was a tree nearby and the tree was alive too and it was speaking to me."
She was a little hesitant telling me about these experiences and other ones that she had had during her walk on the golf course that morning. "It was like everything was alive," she concluded.
"When Father Bede Griffiths was a student," I informed her, "he walked outside one day and had that exact same experience -- that the whole of nature was a living thing. It was his enlightenment experience. He remembered it the rest of his life."
"And who is that man?" she inquired with interest.
"He's a Catholic priest who went to India to convert the heathens but then found the people he had come to convert had a relationship to God more immediate and alive than his own. In the end he removed his priestly robes and donned the orange cloth of a sunyasat. He founded India's first Christian ashram."
"His writings are famous," I told her. "He's respected all over the world. Nobody thinks he's crazy."
She didn't say a word.
"The truth is -- everything is alive. Only, caught up as we are in the way we see things, we don't usually experience that." I went over to my bookshelf and pulled down some of the Christian mystics I'd been reading. I read her passages. She listened attentively.
"I've been feeling a kind of heat in my chest," she volunteered in an uncertain tone, "like I'm burning..."
I went back to my bookshelf and took down Richard Rolle's "The Fire of Love." I read her passages that described the identical symptoms she was having. "You're not going crazy," I told her. "These are enlightenment experiences."
MaryAnn began speaking freely now and began pouring out more of her experiences to me. She asked questions. I talked with her about what I'd been reading and from out of the knowledge-base I'd built up from having lived my life these last few decades the way I'd lived it. These were things I knew about.
In fact, I knew quite a bit about these things. For so many years, whatever track I was reading along always lead back into the literature of enlightenment. I'd come into it again and again from all different angles and then out again in all different directions. I'd devoted decades to the practice of meditation, dream analysis, the martial arts, yoga, tai chi. But even though I knew so much about enlightenment, I'd never gotten enlightened. And now, come to find out, odd as it seemed, the fruit of the way I'd lived my life hadn't been for me at all -- but for my sister.
"Billy, I want to thank you," MaryAnn wrote me in an e-mail a day or so later. "Inasmuch as anyone can save another person's life, you saved mine."
I had struggled for so many years and gotten nowhere. Anyone looking at my situation from the outside would deem it pathetic. However, I now knew otherwise. If nothing else at all ever came of the way I'd been leading my life, I knew I'd saved my sister's life. This was my success. I didn't need any other.
MaryAnn and I became closer and closer. The telephone calls were more and more frequent now. After so many years, we were now speaking the same language. I had taken a workshop a few years back on the health benefits of yoga. I called up the woman who gave that workshop, a doctor living at a yoga ashram in Virginia, and told her about my sister. "Could you use a nurse?" I asked.
"Have her contact me," she said.
But my sister didn't call. Week after week went by, and then a month and another month. Still my sister didn't call. Finally she installed her grown son in his own place and made the move.
"How may we serve you?" was the way they answered the phone every time I called the ashram -- always with the same jarring air of superficial piety. I called every few days to keep track of how MaryAnn was doing with the regimen of meditation, yoga, and hard work.
"MaryAnn doesn't live here anymore," I was informed in breezy tones one day when I called and asked to speak to her.
"What happened?" I asked.
There was a silence at the other end. "I'm sorry," the young lady replied, "I'm really not allowed to talk about that."
"Well who is allowed to talk about it?" I demanded.
The woman gave me the name of the resident social worker who functioned in the capacity of the ashram's mental health professional.
When finally I was able to get through to this woman, almost a week later -- still I had heard no word from my sister -- she informed me in pretentious textbook language that my sister's behavior had been strange.
"You mean you kicked her out?" I accused.
"We asked MaryAnn to leave," the woman admitted, "because we found that she had lied on the application form."
"What do you mean she lied?" I demanded.
"In the place where it asked whether she'd had a history of psychological problems, she'd put 'No'," the social worker informed me. It turned out MaryAnn had gone around telling everybody at the ashram about her experiences, and her near suicide.
"She was only being honest," I said. "That's why you kicked her out."
There was just silence on the other end of the line.
"It's not at all certain," I said to the social worker, "that my sister had psychological problems. It's very possible that she was having an enlightenment experience."
"I came upon MaryAnn washing dishes the other day," the woman replied, "And found her standing there staring silently at the bubbles in the dishwater. When I approached her and asked her why she was behaving like that, she kept staring at the bubbles and repeating something about the way the bubbles were behaving and how it impacted her so strongly."
I grew afraid upon hearing this. "And you just sent someone like that driving off in a car?" I demanded incredulously. "Do you consider that professional?"
She grew silent.
"Every time I call you people," I blurted, "You guys always answer the phone 'How may I serve you?'"
It didn't seem the woman got my point. "You didn't serve my sister!" I explained bluntly and hung up.
Regarding the episode of MaryAnn staring at the bubbles, an incident I'd heard on the radio years before came to mind immediately after I'd hung up the phone. The radio program had been about a little known book entitled "An American Woman's Experience of Enlightenment." The author had been a student at the University of Chicago. She was seated one day in the front row of the class, right under the nose of the pompous professor up at his lectern, when all of a sudden it was as if all space and time opened up to her and she glimpsed things in an entirely expanded way. It was a totally spontaneous occurrence. She wasn't practicing any spiritual discipline at all. The woman sat there transfixed by this utter new sense of things but was abruptly yanked out of her experience by the needling words of the professor peering down at her over the lectern. "Daydreaming are we?" he prodded her directly, "I say, are we daydreaming?"
I didn't hear from my sister for another week or so and then got a post card that she was coming up to stay with me. The next post card I got said she was driving out to tour the Badlands of South Dakota. It seemed like everything was lost. I knew her car was having all kinds of mechanical problems. I also knew she didn't have any money. I began doubting whether my prognosis of her situation had been correct.
A week or so later, the phone rang. It was my sister. It was the first time she'd called since she left the ashram. She'd wound up in Durham, North Carolina at Bo Lozoff's Human Kindness Foundation -- an organization that works to help prisoners. She'd gone there to offer her services for free. They hadn't needed her at the moment but said to come back in a few months. She had driven into the first little town she came to. "Are there any jobs available around here?" she'd asked a woman behind the counter at the main store.
"It's so funny you ask," replied the woman, dragging out a local newspaper. "Just now I read this ad."
Elderly couple seeks live-in nurse." read the ad.
My sister drove over to the address and knocked on the front door. "I just want a place to live and work for a few months," she announced. "I'm not asking for any money."
They hired her on the spot.
"The arrangement has worked out wonderfully," my sister reported. She was calling from the pretty little room of her own they had given her. She had spent the day reorganizing the old woman's pantry and cleaning up the couple's bathroom.
Within a few weeks though, the old man had started making sexual advances on her and would come into her room first thing in the morning while she was trying to do the yoga postures she'd learned at the ashram in Virginia. "I'm leaving," my sister announced.
"Where are you going to go?" I asked.
"I don't know."
I took a yoga class every Sunday here in New York and had gotten to know the swami at that place, who lived up in an ashram in the Catskills. I gave him a call and asked if he could use my sister on staff up there.
"Tell her to call me," he said.
I gave my sister his number.
"I like him," she reported when next we talked. "I'm going."
That was about two years ago. She's still there and has become the workhorse of the place. She does the beds, cleans the rooms and takes care of the laundry. More recently, they've made her the main cook. She's taken their rigorous yoga teacher training course and become a certified yoga teacher herself. She gives her own classes. In the brochures they put out, they always include a picture of her, with her radiant smiling face.
Almost every Sunday when I go to my Sunday evening yoga class down here in Manhattan, I'm approached by somebody with the same line, "Oh, I met your sister MaryAnn last weekend up at the ashram. She helped me so much. She's great!"
"You're MaryAnn's brother!" someone else invariably says to me upon overhearing this, as they turn to look at me suddenly like I'm somebody.
"Yes, MaryAnn's my sister," I say proudly.