THE OTHER SIDE OF EDEN: LIFE WITH JOHN STEINBECK
29. Magical Thinking
As the dust settled on our home front, we could see more clearly into the toxic dynamics that were boiling in the Buddhist community. We began to understand the dangerous trap of magical thinking that surrounds many offshoots of Eastern religions. As my fearless compatriot Andrew Harvey writes in The Direct Path, the "temptation to transcendence is the last, subtlest, and most dangerous of all the temptations to power that appear on the journey to the Divine." [LC-1] Andrew claims that the initial temptation to use occult powers in the domination of others develops into a habitual pattern of "signing off from every kind of earthly responsibility in the name of 'ultimate awareness.'"
Believing that practice and discipline protects them from reality, both students and gurus act as if they are above the law, both civil and universal. Five years later, when Rinpoche's spiritual heir, Tom Rich, revealed his HIV diagnosis, he claimed our guru had told him that if he meditated properly, his unprotected sex would not endanger his partners. Rich proved that theory wrong when he infected a student's son, who died a year later. When Rich died of AIDS in 1990, we heard it was reported in the New York Times that he admitted having over a hundred sexual partners of both sexes, after learning he had AlDS. Senior Vajradhatu officials who knew this did nothing to stop him. According to the Times, Rich said that he thought his sexual partners were protected by the magical power he had received from his lineage.
Another form of magical thinking can be seen in Rinpoche's coked-out fantasies, which were responsible for turning the scene into a Mikado-like parody of courtly intrigue. He created a political mandala, with himself as king, surrounded by his henchmen. The all-male board of directors were adorned by their wives and secretaries. Only one woman had managed to rise to the highest rank, and I was her assistant. The source of a woman's power was her beauty or her husband's position. We were supposed to be building a utopian community. How was this different from corporate America? Fluent in a variety of languages, cultures, and religions, John and I shared an international consciousness. We considered ourselves to be citizens of the world and he raged against the provincial atmosphere.
Unfortunately, when there's a center, there's a fringe. Those who couldn't be at the hub because they didn't have the right stuff were comforted by the party line that a mandala needs people at the periphery. Secretly, they were called Fringies, derided in sneering whispers, like high school nerds. They were promised that if they practiced and volunteered enough, they could ascend to huddle near the chosen few who had the money, glamour, and panache.
According to Tibetan prophecy, When the iron bird flies and horses ride on rails, then the Dharma will come to the west. Rinpoche's pioneering efforts transplanted Tibetan Buddhism to North America. While he did not believe that the feudal monastic model was viable in the West, he couldn't come up with anything more original than the archaic mannerisms of the British monarchy for his "enlightened society." As courtiers, we were encouraged to give lavish dinner parties, fund-raisers, and formal affairs. He urged us to develop livelihoods that would give the community a strong economic base. Just as I'd deduced in my hippie days, our trappings camouflaged a bourgeois small-mindedness as the lemmings struggled to top each other with expressions of elegant opulence. Every house was a replica of Rinpoche's Court, with white carpets, white walls, and the requisite amount of calligraphies and Tibetan art hanging on the walls. While I loved wearing formal gowns and Johnny looked gorgeous in tails, it was like an endless beauty contest for who had the most exquisite clothes, luxurious houses, and extravagant dinner parties. The lack of spirit and conversational depth began to bore us. Once again, we had sought utopia and discovered dystopia. John and I were tired of the petty bureaucrats, phoney yes-men, arrogant intellectuals and their materialistic wives.
Naropa became an accredited university and Rinpoche continued to hold seminars. A program of Buddhist social services was created and any involvement with Boulder community services was highly discouraged. Problems such as alcoholism or mental illness were to be dealt with by the community rather than by outside therapists or AA. The party line was that unless we approached these issues from a Buddhist perspective, we wouldn't find help. This only served to seal the communal pain and family secrets. It was the blind leading the blind, with lay people claiming meditation could heal every problem. Now there is evidence that meditation can actually exacerbate emotional problems, and may even prove dangerous.
Our lawyer and friend, Duncan Campbell, was grappling with the same issues. He recommended Alice Miller's Thou Shalt Not Be Aware as the necessary Draino for our collective denial. She wrote about children who have been disempowered by abuse, growing up in a system where the parents punish them for making the smallest critical observation. Just as their rebellion is met with parental ostracism, this dynamic is later replicated when they attach themselves to a cult. We were attracted to a system that appeared to be antithetical to the rules of our childhood. We learned new customs, rituals, and languages that were completely beyond our parents' reality. As Miller points out, members of the group experience a sense of maternal warmth never felt before. This is how it should have felt had there been a healthy symbiosis with our own mothers. However, every form of addiction, instead of fulfilling the old longing, merely perpetuates the tragedy by repeating the dependency, which in our case was the community and the guru.
Then came the savage blow. We discovered our church was replicating the exact harmonic of our original families. Only this time, instead of our parents, the Buddhist community silenced anyone who questioned with the threat of ostracism. This created a similar anxiety to the infant who risks losing love by inappropriate behavior. This dynamic keeps even the most intelligent members from leaving the group. In our community, questions were often met with a condescending sneer. "How much do you practice?" Dissenters were told, "You're solidifying your ego."
Some guy would flip out because his wife was having an affair and six Buddhists would take him aside and lay that one on him, which always appalled me. I preferred the reaction of the great Tibetan translator, Marpa. When his son died, he wailed and moaned for days.
"Marpa," a puzzled student asked, "you claim the phenomenal world is an illusion, including suffering. Why do you let this bother you so much if it's only an illusion?"
"Because, you idiot, this is super-illusion," he roared.
So you wake up one morning, on a hippie commune or a Tibetan spiritual community, and suddenly you hear the same words your parents used to exert control. Someone else is telling you they know better. They have the answers. They got your power and you weren't even looking. See, you've always been a mess. You'll never get the point. Just do it our way, and you'll be fine, because ours is the only way.
Recovery from religious abuse requires as much courage and tenacity as recovery from drug abuse. When we understood the scene's fascist tactics, we experienced a profound existential crisis that eventually led to our spiritual maturity. Using the perseverance which spilled over from our efforts to hold our family together, we applied the reserves to heal the wounds from our toxic community. But the withdrawal process and subsequent discovery of our personal spirituality was a long and painful journey.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that a student cannot progress on the spiritual path without the guru's blessing. Even if you never practice or study, they claim that obstacles will be cleared and you can attain enlightenment solely by remaining devoted to the guru. However, even if a teacher is guilty of murder or sexual misconduct, once you have become his student, you cannot slander him, examine his qualities, or do anything but treat him with reverence and devotion. This primitive belief system teaches that if you criticize a guru, you will go straight to hell. According to scripture, those who lack faith in the guru will be seen as enemies. They will be everyone's target of abuse.
Initially, John was valued by the community for the feather his name put in their caps. He overheard one of the directors tell a fund-raiser, "Kiss up to Steinbeck. He's got money." They found intriguing similarities between John and Rinpoche, their drinking, the way women threw themselves at both men, their brutal honesty and compassion. John acted out the communal shadow side in his drunken escapades. As long as he was out there, walking point, dancing on the edge, they didn't have to face their darkness. When he began to question the politics, he was dismissed as recalcitrant. And I was often blamed for corrupting him.
When we quit playing the Emperor's New Clothes, many longtime friends turned on us. One of John's drinking buddies, Jack Niland, had previously treated me like Yoko Ono for removing John from the Sex Czar circuit. Jack didn't have the courage to confront John directly, but he confided to me that he was appalled when John told him he got down on his knees and prayed every morning and evening after joining AA.
"Buddhists don't pray!" Jack sputtered. "What does he pray to?"
"That's what keeps him sober," I explained. "He's talking to a power greater than himself and he's finding out exactly what that power is."
Jack's alcoholism was clearly threatened. "I can't even hang out with you guys without breaking my vows," he ranted, referring to the edict that it was dangerous to listen to heresy about the guru. "You say terrible things about Rinpoche."
"That he's an alcoholic."
"You mean a medical diagnosis is not allowed?" I asked incredulously.
When I repeated the conversation to Johnny, he rolled his eyes. "Just ignore him. He's been invaded by the Body Snatchers. It's pitiful." They never spoke again.
In the winter of 1982, at a gathering of courtiers in Pennsylvania, Diana, Rinpoche's wife, invited us to move to the property adjoining her farm in rural Nova Scotia, where she was training for the U.S. Olympic dressage competition. While I had been studying with her in Boulder, and might have loved the proximity to her riding school, I told her it would take a papal injunction, a command from Rinpoche, for John to consider moving up there. She said she would work on her husband. The papal edict was proclaimed and we were summoned to meet with her and Rinpoche to discuss the offer.
"Oh, I get it," John said humorously. "Rinpoche's going to say, 'Won't you be my neighbor?'"
In our search for a new way of living, we decided to check out the situation, though we doubted that Nova Scotia would appeal to us any more than it had the last time. We wanted a fresh start, what AA calls a geographic cure. Painful memories of John's drinking lurked on every street corner in Boulder and the town was turning into a white ghetto of Yuppie consumerism.
We flew up to Diana's farm, north of Halifax. It consisted of a large barn for her horses, a miserably bleak farmhouse, mismatched wallpaper, and a bitter, freezing wind. John was downright insulted when he saw the house she wanted us to buy.
"It looks like a girls' boarding-school dorm," he said with disgust. "How could she even think we'd want to live miles from nowhere?" I hated the house, with its narrow upstairs hall that opened into tiny, pinched bedrooms. Diana's promise of proximity to Rinpoche did not entice us. He would be bored there, and we predicted Diana wouldn't last long either. She sold the farm the following year.
So there we were. We'd seen the house. The bleached sun was barely warming the frigid December afternoon. To kill time, we decided to visit a friend named Dorje. We found her in the depths of depression. She hated everything about Nova Scotia. The neighbors were suspicious of the ringing bells, drums, and chanting when she practiced. They thought it was devil worship. Years later, she heard voices that told her to slice off both her ample breasts. Someone found her before she lost too much blood. She was not the only psychological casualty among us. A fellow student committed hara-kiri with a wooden sword. A woman, convinced she was a Tibetan deity, walked naked down a Berkeley street. Another woman purposely walked through a plate-glass window after an intensive practice retreat. She firmly believed the glass would not stop her.
Suddenly, John and I felt like we'd hit a wall. Stopping at a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way back to Diana's, I was despondent. I desperately wanted to go somewhere, preferably another country, just to get away from our Yuppie Boulder sandbox. We sat glumly with our neon chicken.
"What do we need?" John asked.
"A spiritual community, but not this one, and not at the end of the world. I want to see more of the world."
Johnny drew me close. "Let's take the kids to Nepal. We can spend a year traveling around the world. My father did it for me and I'd like to do it for my children." I looked at him incredulously. He was adamant. "We need to celebrate the work we've done. Lets go back and tell Diana we're not going to buy that damned house. Then we'll start planning our journey."
Eight months later, we headed in a westerly direction and circumnavigated the globe for a year. We often remembered that Kentucky Fried dinner in the most exotic places, Tibetan refugee camps, monasteries in Darjeeling, Hong Kong ferries, at the Louvre, dining alfresco in Positano. As we turned our backs on an era, on Rinpoche's kingdom and that tiny provincial world that was about to implode, we embraced the entire planet.
While we were planning the trip, my mother's uterine cancer, which had been in remission for the past seven years, settled into her body with a death sentence. In 1975, when I returned to British Columbia from my first summer at Naropa, my parents had visited us just before she was initially diagnosed. A month later, the discovery of a tumor explained her fatigue. The doctors gave her six months to live. The day before I flew down to San Francisco to comfort her, a dashing fellow with movie-star good looks and waist-length blond hair drove up to our house. Sent by a Buddhist organization in Vancouver, he heard we might want to turn our land into a retreat center. He had made the long trek up the logging road to survey our four hundred acres. When I explained the necessity of my trip to California, he left me with the number of their affiliate in San Francisco. Once there, I discovered my mother's nurse was a member of the group, and she invited me to join them for evening meditation.
Devastated by my mother's ill health, I decided to attend their meeting. After an hour of sitting meditation, I slumped in a chair, feeling crushed by the weight of the doctor's prognosis. Suddenly, a graceful dark-skinned woman in a red sari entered the room. The atmosphere became charged. She had thick black hair swept up in a bun and laser-sharp eyes. Without hesitation, she walked directly up to me. "You look so unhappy," she said with concern.
"I just found out my mother has cancer. They have given her a few months to live."
"Bring your mother to me tomorrow and I will help her. She won't die."
This was Dr. Rina Sircar, a revered Burmese nun who practiced traditional healing and taught Sanskrit language classes at Stanford. Her sisters are all highly respected surgeons and gynecologists in India; one brother had trained with the famed Dr. Christian Barnard. In a magical instant, she lifted the pain from my heart. That single auspicious meeting gave my mother seven more years of life. Rina's treatments consisted of passing her hands over my mother and whispering mantras. Astounded by the instant remission, doctors and family members developed a new respect for alternative healing methods.
My mother had always known she would die at the age of seventy-six, so when the cancer came back in 1983, just before that birthday, she was at peace. I left the kids with John and flew out to San Francisco. Armed with a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I was prepared to usher her into the bardo, the state a soul enters after death. In spite of her drinking and harsh emotional abuse, we had formed a loving friendship after chemotherapy forced her into sobriety. She would often call me just to say, "You are my best friend. I can tell you anything and I know you'll understand."
However, my father was a wreck. Upon my arrival, even before I saw my mother at the hospital, he confided that he had rekindled a relationship with a woman he had known at Stanford. They were going to live together after my mother's death. My reaction was neutral; if he had carried a torch all those years, he deserved to resolve his fantasies. Unfortunately, this was a man who had never dealt with his emotions, and within a few hours I could tell he was in need of psychiatric help. Clinging to the hope that his lost love would spare him the grief over my mother's death, he was emotionally volatile, headed for a crash. Still unaware of the incest issues between us, I felt very uncomfortable in his presence since my mother was no longer there to run interference for his inadequacies.
John flew out immediately and we moved into a hotel, which infuriated my father. He railed about my abandonment. Why wasn't I staying in the family home, caring and cooking for him? I tried to make his favorite stew, but I left it boiling on the stove as we went to the hospital. I had to turn around and drive the half hour back to turn off the pot that was simmering in the silent house. With no regard for the pain I was experiencing over the impending loss of my mother, he thought everything should revolve around his needs.
I never had a normal life, so whenever something ordinary happened, like my husband being with me when my mother died, I counted my blessings. Commonplace events hung on my belt like scalps, like the way John took me out to quiet, elegant restaurants every night after I left the hospital. He had brought a new Abyssinian kitten to charm my mother and for me to cuddle when the grief struck. Those gestures helped keep me sane. In spite of previous friends, lovers, husbands, and kids, I had felt alone all my life. Yet now, at the end of every day, as long as John was sober, I could regain my sense of pride and faith. Disgusted with my father's blatant jealousy, I was fiercely protective toward the sense of normalcy and companionship John gave me.
Although we took my father out to breakfast and lunch, it was never enough. The black saliva spewing from his twisted soul finally burst the dam. While my mother lay dying, he whispered vile epithets under his breath about my abandonment. I begged my brother to come down from Sacramento to intervene, but he coldly refused. I wanted to spend a few hours alone with my mother each day without my father's obscenities. In desperation, I asked the hospital administration to arrange a session with a social worker so that I could confront my father's behavior. Seething with rage, I was determined that he would not ruin my last hours with my mother.
"She had a lover when she was married to her first husband," he hissed. Incredulous, the social worker asked him how on earth that related to providing a peaceful passage for my mother. Holding my ground, I rode out threats of disowning me and silently vowed a bloody triumph on his assault. He finally sneered and said, "That's all you want? Some time alone with her? Take it."
Already in a state of shock, as my Daddy's Little Girl role turned into his distorted projection of frustration and impotence, I was heartbroken. John was extraordinarily tender with me, as he always was in times of great need. He stayed sober during those weeks, except for one short trip to Monterey to visit Thom. Of course, he drank the whole time he was down there, returning disheveled and reeking, his arms full of apologetic red roses. I continued the sacrament of sitting by the deathbed as my world cracked part. My mother was dying, my father's psyche was in shards, my husband was in relapse, and my guru was perpetually drunk. Was I suffocating or springing forth from a new womb of liberation? One foot in front of the other, slogging through the maze, I was determined to reach my destination, my true self. This heroine was taking no prisoners. Slashing, burning, the days on fire, I held my ground as I watched the life force bleed out of my mother, father, husband, and religion. Sometimes I would falter, but mostly I knew I was going to emerge victorious.
"I love you so much," my mother whispered her last words to me.
Rina performed a ritual at the hospital to ensure her peaceful passage, and the next day she was gone. My father didn't have the courage to face her corpse. He asked me to pick up her things, so John and I went to the hospital. Kissing her without hesitation, John closed her eyes with a quick reflex, as though he had closed a million dead lids. I sensed he wanted to spare me an imprint of the filmy blue stare.
"Thank you for giving me Nancy. I will cherish her as much as you did." Just as I feared later with Johnny, I did not want her cold skin to become a memory, so I refrained from touching her. We sat with her body and I felt her lightness and relief. We were free to start our journey around the world. I clung to John as we drove back to the hotel, feeling profound gratitude for his calm, strong presence. I wanted this man around for all the death I would ever encounter. However, I knew he would not last to see me through mine.
John had already traveled around the world four times. He knew which places would be of most interest to Megan and Michael, who were fourteen and ten years old at the time. We decided to spend time in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and Bangkok before setting down for the school year in Kathmandu, Nepal. John had been there, after motorcycling up the length of India, and he had always wanted to show it to me. We could study with the many Tibetan lamas who had sought refuge there after the Chinese invasion. John had a great fondness for Third World countries, and I had cherished memories of the year I spent in Mexico, where Michael was born. Excited about exploring the world as a family, we set off in the fall of 1983 with four suitcases and high hopes. The following excerpts from my journal were written during that year of grace.
We flew into Kathmandu this afternoon. I was so excited last night, I couldn't sleep. In the Bangkok hotel at midnight, I drew a bath while John sat on the edge of the tub, painting a picture of the enchanting valley we were about to enter, the jade-green rice fields rimmed with towering snowy peaks. When we got here, I felt him watching our reaction, vigilant to see how we are adjusting. With the breath knocked out of us, the children and I kept drinking it in, trying to make sense of sizes and angles and diseases and levels of poverty we've never seen. In the swarm of tiny Nepali people at the airport, we hired two taxis, one for us and one for our luggage which holds a year's supply of things you can't get here (Tampax, spices, prescription drugs). Rickshaws, tukuks (three-wheeled motorcycle taxis), women in saris and men in sarongs, beggars, our first sight of lepers, all rushed past in a blur of color, strange smells, and bursts of sounds.
The Rose Hotel, recommended by the government tourist office at the airport, is funky. We said we didn't care where we spent the first night, later we would look for a home base. The green walls of the room are peeling and look putrid in the light of one bare bulb. This morning we had no hot water for bathing, but the brick courtyard filled with rosebushes makes the whole place bearable. John likes funky hotels; Megan and I do not. He was worried that we might be offended by Kathmandu's filth. I see it as primitive; this level of rawness can only be hidden by affluence. Like an acid rush, I welcome that old Third World seduction. It settles in my body, releasing the American toxins from our pretense that life is not really happening. John is relieved; he has quit watching us. He's gotten the reaction he wanted, that we would love it here as much as he does.
Last night we took the children to dinner at the best Indian restaurant, the Gar-e-Kabab, next to the elegant Annapurna Hotel. Located in a neighborhood that caters to the Nepalese upper class, John chose that restaurant because it is sufficiently westernized. He wants to acculturate them gently. This was the moment he had been chuckling about for years, when our designer-clothed children would discover how the rest of the world lives. He started by telling them about the city, the customs, the incredible history of how the Western world came to Nepal. The Rana Princes ordered their Mercedes from India, which had to be disassembled and carried across the Himalayan foothills on elephants, only to be reassembled when they reached Kathmandu. Since there were no roads, they could only drive around the palace grounds. Loving all things Rococo, the elephants also packed in delicate china, crystal chandeliers, and ornate mirrors, as well as Rolex watches and other civilized accoutrements.
Then Megan and Michael started asking the questions John had expected. "Where's the mall? The closest English-speaking movie theater? Any video arcades?"
With impeccable timing, John delivered the punch line he had been rehearsing for months.
"Guess what? There aren't any." When they realized they were thousands of miles from even the nearest television station, they began to cry. As they drowned in culture shock, we reveled in a perverse delight over their electronic withdrawal. This was precisely why we had taken them out of Boulder's white-bread Disneyland, which was turning them into miniature racist consumers who thought the entire world hung out at the mall. John provided cold comfort when he pointed out that there were places you could rent videos to watch on TV.
We went to Lincoln School today to enroll the children. It is a school for embassy families. The students were very welcoming but the smug looks on some of their faces caused us to warn Megan and Michael about the white supremacy trap that so many Westerners fall into in Asia. We told them to be really careful about feeling superior. "Your pale skin and designer jeans don't make you better. The Nepalese have a lot to teach us." We don't want them imprisoned in a white ghetto in the midst of this exotic culture. Hoping they will establish a new identity as citizens of the world, we want them to learn how to work the town like natives.
"That way, they will feel at home in any country," John said.
Boulder Buddhists who'd been here told us that the Vajra Hotel is the place to stay, so we checked in there this afternoon. It is an incredibly beautiful place, at the foot of a hill crowned with Swayambhunath Stupa, a towering monument, where the Buddha taught. Born in southern Nepal, his footprints are embedded in stone near the Stupa, where monkeys tumble around the footpaths, mischievously eyeing cameras and handbags. We were told not to look them in the eye, which can threaten and turn them aggressive. This land abounds with the history of characters from our ritual chants and practices.
The hotel is tall, red brick, with the traditional ornate carved wooden windows, a pagoda roof, rose gardens, an art gallery, a theater, and makeshift room service. Owned by Westerners, it is perfect for us. We have rented two large rooms, one above the other, with modern plumbing. I don't think I can ever face a Nepali toilet, a fetid hole in the floor.
John's been shopping for a new motorcycle for the past two days. He brought it back to the hotel this afternoon, a bright-red Yamaha 185. He's downstairs in the courtyard putting a padded passenger seat on the back. I'm stunned. Most men would be tearing around the valley, flaunting their symbol of freedom, but he is fixing the seat so I'll be comfortable. Watching him so painstakingly adjusting the backrest, I could cry at his tenderness. He says he doesn't want to test-drive it around the valley without me on the back.
Far from anyone we know, from anyone who recognizes our name, we are cut loose from the curse of fame. We're simply John and Nancy. The Nepalese have never heard of Steinbeck. Sensing we are genuinely enthralled by them, they like us simply for that, measuring how we speak from the heart, not by appearance or money. John has shed the mantle and the weight of stardust and so have I. It's deeply subtle and incredibly humbling. I didn't know to what an extent I had assumed his karma till I felt this relief. He says he loves being free of it.
Tonight we were walking home from Boris's restaurant in Thamel to the hotel, across the bridge by the ghat, a place beside the river where bodies are burned. We left the kids to eat dinner and do their homework in the Vajra dining room. I was wary; it was late and dark. In an American city that size, you watch your back. John stopped me in the middle of the bridge and said, "It's not like New York. You don't have to be afraid. They don't have crime like that here." I could feel layers of conditioning dropping away then. These are gentle people; they don't think of hurting or robbing. I practiced feeling safe the rest of the way home, across the bridge, down narrow dark alleys lit only by the moon. I am shedding so much programming. When we got back to the hotel, a guest was helping Megan with her French and Michael was engrossed in a chess game with a Nepali waiter. It feels like a home.
We rode out to Boudanath to see the Great Stupa, sitting there like a huge flying saucer in the middle of the plaza. It's an ancient, enormous pile of white stone with a dome top, strung with colorful prayer flags, a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. We joined the traditional circumambulation, along with dozens of Tibetan devotees who prostrate every inch of the way. I could have sat there for hours, staring at them. They seem so wild, like a circus you want to run away with. These pilgrims have crossed the border from Tibet for the winter. They live in black yak-hair tents pitched in the surrounding fields. They have a look in their eye that is so primitive, almost Stone Age, as if they have never seen civilization. When I see that, my heart stirs up crazy feelings and I want to crawl into their tents with them and tend their lavender-tinged donkeys.
This morning we woke up to the kids talking in the courtyard below our window.
"I smell a body burning."
"No, dummy. That's garbage."
"Nuhuh, Michael, that's a body. I know what they smell like."
There is a burning ghat on the river bank below the hotel, a concrete slab where bodies are cremated. Yesterday we attended a Hindu cremation ceremony. Megan and Michael peered into the flames and then started chanting, "There's the rib cage, there's the skull." No shock or horror, quite Lord of the Flies, without an ounce of sentiment. With the detachment of a laboratory scientist, they accept the finality. I'm not that blase. Sometimes I hide in the hotel room, especially after seeing the river-rock smoothness of a limb eaten to the elbow, flake by flake, by leprosy. There are days when I cannot face the beggars. It's the mothers with babies that I cannot resist. I've decided to distribute a certain amount of rupees when I go out. After that's gone, I have learned to say Pice china, which means "no more money." Then they don't pester you.
John handles the Asian people with such offhanded ease. I see so many Western men awkwardly posture to prove themselves; it's pathetic. They act as though they're so magnanimous, like We're all equal. You can tell by their apoplexy when they don't get their way that they secretly believe dark-skinned people should be subservient. John spent so many years in Asia, he grins at the way it kicks the instant gratification out of your agenda. He's loose around these people, he laughs easily and engages them gracefully with a teasing playfulness. This social tai chi melts resistance; with a flick of his innate imperiousness, he lets them know he has all day, no, all year, and pretty soon they're knocking themselves out for him. When I see those uptight Western wimps, I'm thrilled to be traveling with him. He sets a great example for the kids.
Nanichuri, the Nepali nanny of the German woman who manages the hotel, has become quite attached to Megan and Michael. Tiny enough to fit into a suitcase, she is fiercely attentive to Kim-la, her half-Tibetan charge. We have entrusted the children to Nanichuri's care and traveled west by motorcycle to Pohkara, a resort at the foot of the Annapurna Range.
It was the most incredible ride. John had often spoken of this tropical lake with Mount Machupichari towering 27,000 feet above the murky green waters. It took us seven hours to drive the 200 kilometers on the twisted highway, filled with beings of all kinds. Mostly water buffalo, chickens, and goats, but we did come across a man lying on his stomach in the middle of the road, reading a book. Nepal has an Alice in Wonderland quality, where things look curiouser and curiouser and all you can do is giggle because it's so convoluted. Even the landscape is hard to compute. It's all straight up-and-down mountainsides with terracing on every available inch, which gives everything a rippled, tipsy effect, like when you watch a river moving and then shift your eyes back to the land. The road is chipped high into a mountainside, and below the sheer cliffs plunge down through dark narrow canyons to the twisting rivers fed by melting Himalayan snow.
The orange mud-and-straw thatched huts look particularly elegant at this time of harvest, hung with golden strings of braided corn, creamy garlic, and puddled orange pumpkins. From their elaborate black carved wooden windows, faces peak out at us in surprise. Westerners on a motorcycle are an unusual sight. The winnowing, threshing rhythms of working with nature softens the mind as the body blends into the mountains' curves. You could cry with every passing sight, the goatherd, the rapid "Hello! One rupee? Goodbye!" echoing from the children. Golden raspberries sold by the roadside in paper cones look and taste like jewels. The high mountain air is so intoxicating, I feel constantly giddy. Each moment of the ride held something unexpected, exploding constantly varying textures, accompanied by the rock and roll blasting on our twin earphone'd Walkman. Johnny would dip and sway the motorcycle in rhythm with the music. We felt like we were sailing through Paradise, velcro'd to each other, dizzy in love, and enraptured by the spirit of this magical kingdom. [LC-2]
It was dark when we arrived in Pokhara. I never saw the mountains until this morning, just the smoky town and men sitting on blankets, selling parts of used flashlights and ballpoint pens. John had made reservations for us at the Fishtail Lodge, on the far side of the lake. We parked the bike and signaled for the hotel boatman, who pulled a raft silently through green water, hand-over-hand on a rope strung from the other bank. It was so tropically soft and quiet, we fell asleep soon after dinner. This morning, John woke me and told me to turn my head to the right, but keep it on the pillow. "Now, open your eyes!" The view astonished me. There was the Annapurna range, with Machupichari's crowning peak. Only 15 miles away, the towering thirty thousand foot tall mountains rise so dramatically from the valley floor, I felt I could touch them.
Today I am speechless, just staring at the snowy peaks, from the pillow, from the deck off our room, from the boat we paddled about on the lake for hours. To the Nepalis, the mountains are goddesses and as I commune with them, I feel myself falling passionately in love.
We have lazed every day away in Pokhara, enthralled by the scenery. Yesterday we took a precarious jeep ride up a dry creek bed to the Tibetan refugee camp to visit a shaman that our friends in Kathmandu told us about. Powa Anchuck is famous among Tibetans and Nepalese for working miracles, especially in the cure of rabies. Without breaking the skin, they claim he sucks a litter of tiny puppies from the patient's stomach through a human thigh bone. The brood is always the exact replica of the rabid dog. Holding the creatures in his palm, they say he then eats them, bones and all.
Upon arriving at the camp, we paid ten dollars for a tiny hotel room where he set up his makeshift shrine, wearing a cardboard crown. After four hours of ritual ceremonies meant to purify the room, we were ushered in. He is old and ugly and rumored to beat his wife. Although he looks quite poor, the Queen of Bhutan consults with him regularly and he salts away her payments.
He didn't look up when we entered, continuing to make offerings to the deities. Suddenly his head snapped back, his eyes rolling, his raspy voice turning into a shriek. He used a small bone to suck out what he claimed were blood clots from the back of John's neck. He asked if John had fallen in the past year. We remembered his tumble down the long marble staircase at the Boulderado. There were five tiny red clots lying in Powa Anchuk's palm and the atmosphere in the room was charged and crackling.
Our return to the Vajra last night held more surprises. We went straight to the children's room, and found them in bed. They had come down with a fever while we were gone. As they were telling us how sick they had been, a tall woman with long straight black hair, wearing a traditional Tibetan dress, flew into the room. "How do you do? I'm Hetty MacLise. I've just returned from India and found your children ill, so I tended them when Nanichuri was busy."
Hetty is the British mother of one of the rare acknowledged Western tulkus, a reincarnated lama. Her son is the sixth highest incarnation in the Kargyu Lineage, with His Holiness Karmapa and the Four Regents preceding him. The child, Ossian, is now fifteen years old. As a young boy, he had spent many years at the Kargyu monastery up the hill at Swayambhu. Hetty has just returned from visiting him in Sikkim, where he has been pursuing his studies at Rumtek, Karmapa's monastery.
Hetty tells us Ossian's father, Angus MacLise, was a beat poet and a drummer with the Velvet Underground who died in Kathmandu many years ago. She is an artist and lives here at the Vajra. She looks like a cross between an Acid Queen and a Tibetan matron, very flamboyant and colorful. We sat up half the night, captivated by her stories.
We have become fast friends with Hetty. This morning she and I took the children to the King's Royal Game Reserve for an elephant ride. Sailing along twelve feet off the ground to the peculiar sway rocking sway, the beast undulated like a plodding water bed through the jungle. Our heads were level with golden monkeys dangling from sun-dappled treetops. We watched in fascination as the trainer, called a mahout, steered with his bare feet placed behind the huge pink-freckled ears. There was one terrifying moment when the mahout's mallet bounced off the elephant's head as he was guiding her. As we halted on a steep slope, she stood perfectly still while he climbed twenty yards down the hill to collect it. We sat there holding our breath, at the mercy of this unattended behemoth, fully expecting her to bolt back to the stable like a riderless horse. Hetty started chanting mantras for protection, and we all joined in, giggling somewhere between giddiness and terror. Patient and still, the elephant stood silent as a mountain. She lifted the mahout gently back to his seat with her trunk and continued past monkeys scurrying out of her way on the trail far below us. We sang all the way back to the barn.
I've asked Hetty if I could tape the story of how Ossian was discovered to be a tulku. I've been praying for something to write about. Since we're staying at a hotel, I don't have a domestic reference point. Without cooking, shopping, or cleaning up, sometimes I'm a bit lost about my identity and dismayed at how much it's been wrapped up in being a caretaker. I've also seen how those actions are more than drudgery. They were ways of showing my family how much I love them, by creating grace, beauty, and order. Now that energy is transmitted by spending time listening, explaining, and exploring together.
I found a wonderful room at the top of the hotel to practice my ngondro. I'm just starting the 100-syllableVajrasattva mantra of purification, and the flow of Sanskrit words comes very slowly. Out the window I can see across the entire misty blue valley, past the medieval city to the mountains beyond. I am so blissed out when I finish, it's heaven. So when I'm not hanging out with John and the kids, I practice, read, write letters, wander through the streets just looking-looking as the Nepalis put it. Sometimes I miss "work" Most Westerners are here to study or trek, very few have jobs unless they teach or are employed by an embassy. In fact, it's considered rude to ask "What do you do?" This is to avoid the same awkwardness you feel when you're just a mother or a homemaker and someone asks that; you secretly want to smack them because you don't have a better answer.
Things move at a slower pace here and so little can be accomplished compared with American efficiency. It's very humbling, and many Westerners can't take it. Their egos feed on habitual hurry. Soon they're off, buzzing from one lama to another, then down to India to check out Sai Baba's ashram or the hippie-infested beach at Goa. It takes a certain amount of stamina to make a life here. Interviewing Hetty will be a welcome attempt at creating the feeling that I'm accomplishing something.
Yesterday was Michael's eleventh birthday. We managed to put together a great party for him, with one amusing mishap. There's a bakery in town where you can order real Western birthday cakes and so we had one delivered by taxi to the hotel this morning. About an hour later we heard a great commotion in the courtyard below our window. Apparently, the wrong cake had been sent up. Unbeknownst to us, you can order cakes laced with liberal amounts of marijuana from that bakery, and a loaded one had been delivered by mistake. The bakery was delivering the dope-free cake and trying to get the other one back from the kitchen manager. We all had a good laugh, but it would have been dreadful if Michael's young guests had bitten into the wrong one. Hetty told us a similar thing had happened to her when she'd ordered a cake for one of the lamas. Often, when you walk out of the monastery up at Swayambu, a Nepali hustler will whisper, "Smack, cocaine, marijuana?" Since the sixties, Westerners have been coming here for the drugs. I hate what it's doing to the Nepalese, a genocide in the making.
The children played soccer in the courtyard, and then the hotel served them lunch. After the cake, we all went upstairs and watched videos.
Hetty and I have been getting up early every morning and taking a taxi to Choki Nyima Rinpoche's monastery across town in Boudenath where he is giving a weeklong Three Yana seminar. After his talks, the monks serve a lovely lunch and then they offer Tibetan language lessons. I'm struggling with the letters, which I love drawing. It's considered a sacred language and I feel the energy when I'm practicing.
While Rinpoche lectures, you can hear the high voices of the youngest monk-lets, some of them only four years old, reciting the alphabet. They are so adorable in their miniature red robes, earnest and sincere, far from their homes and parents. I wonder if they get lonely. I remember Trungpa Rinpoche talking about missing his mother "as only a small boy can" in his autobiography, Born in Tibet.
We actually celebrated a Christmas of sorts. A German family brought over some pine boughs hung with handmade ornaments, stuck in a pottery urn, so that we would have a tree. John had been cruising the Tibetan traders at Bouda for the rare perfect pieces of coral, and he made me a beautiful mala, a string of dark shiny wooden beads interspersed with fat bright-red round pieces of coral, like cherry tomatoes. A mala is a Tibetan rosary, used for counting mantras.
Hetty joined us as we opened our presents. We feel as if she's a part of our family now. The children adore her. Often she lets them do their home work in her room, and then tells them stories. She comes with us to their performances at Lincoln School. With Ossian gone, she showers them with her leftover maternal affection. It's quite touching.
Just for an adventure, John and I took a taxi ride above valley this afternoon. We told the driver we wanted to do some mountain viewing, as the Nepalese call it. He took us over the crest of the foothills that ring the valley. We reached a viewpoint just as pink alpenglow touched the frosted tips of the Himalayas. A hundred miles of snowy peaks stretched across the horizon, towering four miles above me, culminating near the southern end with Everest. This is nature's "Ode to Joy," and my heart burst with awe.
Last night was New Year's Eve. The Vajra held a dance with a live band which has been rehearsing here for days, mostly by playing "I'll Be Watching You" by the Police, over and over till we wanted to scream. We were up in the ballroom when the dance started. It was packed with young Nepali men. No females in sight. Nepali girls aren't allowed out of the house at night. When the band started up, they only had each other to dance with. There was no awkwardness, they simply grabbed partners and started to gyrate. It went on way past midnight. At one point a gang of boys came from up the hill from the Thamel neighborhood, and whispers went around the ballroom, "Thamel Boys coming," so they all went out in the courtyard to protect their motorcycles. John moved ours just before a whole row of them was pushed over like dominos.
Megan's Nepali boyfriend is a prince in the Newari tribe. His family owns vast amounts of land near the Tibetan border. He isn't allowed to bring her home, or even acknowledge that he's dating a Western girl. Megan is fascinated by this racism. She wants to wear saris and wonders how her copper hair would look dyed black. She and Michael are learning to speak the language and when we're in the hotel dining room, they eat Nepali-style, with their hands. John and I are delighted at their assimilation of the culture.
After midnight, John and I took a ride over to the center of the city. He brought along some trick flash paper, the kind that explodes into a ball of fire when you light it. Within seconds, he had a huge crowd around him. Giggling hysterically, they started chasing him as he rode his motorcycle in circles around the plaza. He had everyone going. No wonder he was a cult hero when he lived in Vietnam during the war, famous among the American soldiers and the Vietnamese. His charisma is magic, intoxicating; it rides the razor's wild edge. Nights like this, I wish we could stay here forever because I know how things are heightened here, and they will inevitably go flat when exposed to jaded Western attitudes.
This is us, this is the epitome of us and it feeds our adoration of each other. Few Westerners know how to nurture this level of delight. Will we have to work to keep it alive, amidst the speed that will inevitably claim us upon our return? Sometimes I wake up late at night while John's reading and he says he's been thinking about how much he loves me. There's time here to do that, to languorously appreciate the Beloved. Because nothing is hidden, not death, or excrement, or disease, everything is relaxed. There is no need to strain at the bit to keep from acknowledging the shadows, the filth, the poverty, the way we homogenize all those negatives in the West and come out desperately trying to look like we're Having a Nice Day. Here there is no Sani-Wrap on pain and so the lid is lifted and joy can soar. I am beginning to savor every minute with gratitude, and for the first time in my life, I feel at home on the planet.
Michael paid us a supreme compliment yesterday. "You guys are so polite to each other, you sound like Chip 'n' Dale." I asked Johnny what that meant.
"They're always saying things like 'You first!' and then she says, 'Oh no, you first, please!'" When the four of us eat in restaurants together, the other tourists eye us as they sit silently, having run out of things to say. They wonder what our secret is as they see us jabbering and giggling away.
This afternoon, Michael and I walked down to the bridge below our hotel. A body was burning at the ghat on the opposite shore of the river. We perched on a stone wall and watched a mountain shaman conduct a funeral ceremony for a small child on a sand spit in the river below us. He lit a pile of neatly crossed logs and prayed over the tiny shrouded body. The family sat near him and during their silent mourning, they would occasionally pull out a plastic jug of homemade liquor from the cooling river and pass it around. The mother sat slightly removed and stared at the sacred waters flowing past, her head averted from the body and the ritual. This river, the Bagmati, is like the holy Ganges to the Nepalis.
On the far bank, beneath a towering pagoda, the other body had almost totally been reduced to ashes. John wandered down from the hotel looking for us and we sat on the bridge for several hours, absorbing the two funerals. Huge pigs and water buffalo wallowed under our dangling feet. A Sherpa mountain guide stopped to chat. He showed us where he'd lost two fingers to frostbite on his most recent successful Everest expedition.
As the torch was put to the child's pyre, across the river the other family was shoveling the charred remains of the cremated body onto a bamboo mat, which they then spilled into the slow-moving water. We watched the blackened fragments of bone flow downstream. The huge buzzards wheeled above the pagoda and the snow mountain tips leaned gracefully over the valley in watchful reverence. I felt a simultaneous rush of impermanence and fulfillment, bliss and emptiness.
John wrote this poem about yesterday:
We took the kids to Pohkara last weekend. Megan and John went on the motorcycle and Michael and I flew. With the plane at 20,000 feet, the mountains are still two miles above you, which is mind-boggling. I'm so used to flying over the Rockies, where they're two miles below. The children made instant friends with the Nepali kids who live near the Fishtail Lodge and they're gone all day. They've learned to fashion slingshots from twigs and shoe leather, to fish with a branch and twine, floating on rafts, diving from the boats, coming home waterlogged, Third World Tom Sawyers.
We love to imitate the Nepali children's gentle pidgin English. They will sit forever watching John turning the motorcycle headlight off and on for them, chanting "Light coming" as it goes on and patiently waiting till he turns it off, saying "Light pinished" in hushed voices filled with awe. When one of them got in trouble with his father, the brother told our kids he couldn't play anymore that day. "He crying-sing," he relayed sadly, in their wonderfully poetic way.
John and I drove into town today. He wanted to buy me a shawl of purple velvet embroidered with red strawberries. This is a status symbol among the women of the mountain tribes and he thinks I should have one too if I'm going to be completely Nepali. Last week as I was browsing in the gift shop of the Annapurna Hotel, I overheard the owner saying to someone, "You see her, she lives here. Actually, you could say she is a Nepali." That is the highest compliment you can receive from the locals. It's also something John teases me about all the time. Wherever I go with him, I'm not content until a strange town is familiar enough so that I can navigate it by myself. When I come back and tell him about my forays, he then calls those places that I've conquered "My Bangkok, My Hong Kong, My Kathmandu." That's what he meant when he talked about the female duck in the poem, about "her Bagmati." It makes me laugh, but it also makes me feel very pleased with myself, and I know he's proud, too, because that's the way he likes to see the world. It's all about making your oyster wherever you are.
They told us we could buy the material at a tiny shop on the outskirts of town. We parked the bike under a banyan tree and walked in. They did have some of the coveted purple velvet, which comes all the way from Hong Kong. As we were ordering a length of it, I turned around. The shop had suddenly filled with a horde of incredibly silent Nepalis, just watching us. I whispered to John, "If you were blind, you'd never know that they were in here." You couldn't even feel their vibes, they were so gentle, but fascinated that Westerners would want to own one of their status symbols.
Sometimes we load the kids on the bike and ride around with all four of us, Nepali-style. They love to get as many people on as possible. When they see us do it, they laugh and point hysterically.
We're moving into a house. Hotel life is wearing thin. We lost our cover when the Western managers returned from America where they heard from William Burroughs that John and I were living here. Apparently the two women are employees of a multimillion-dollar cult which owns property all around the world. They've told everyone about the Steinbeck thing, as if to gain prestige. Whenever we walk into the dining room now, there are whispers and knowing glances. The regular guests used to treat us in a relaxed manner, but now they want to engage us and there's often that underlying push to prove something, to come away with something. The Nepali staff couldn't care less, thankfully. They still treat us with the same gentleness they bestow upon everyone. We feel like we've fallen from grace, but maybe there's something better in store. We're going into culture shock, slimed with their sicko-sycophantic fawning. I'm disgusted. They have no notion of protecting our privacy, and they don't give a fig about me and the kids, it's all groveling over John.
I contacted a rental agency in Kathmandu and found a huge furnished house. For $450 a month we have Gopal, the cook; Serita, the maid and nanny; and Krishna, who sleeps in the guard house and seems to live only to open and close our gate. He lazes around the kitchen all day, but whenever we leave the compound or come home, he stands by the huge gate at strict attention. For an extra $5 a month he will grow a vegetable garden. It's a house built for an embassy family, two-story brick with a roof garden that looks over the valley. We just finished eating lunch up there, cooked by Gopal and served by Serita. Now we are Sahib and Memsahib. They bring us breakfast in bed and ask what we will be wanting for lunch and dinner and what time we want to eat. Gopal shops, Serita cleans the house and does laundry in the bathtub. When the kids come home from school, she fixes them a snack. The Lincoln School bus drops them off at the corner, and you can tell they're coming, because the little kids line the street and shout, "Michael-el! Michael-el!" I don't know if it's his strawberry-blond hair or his equanimity, but he's certainly inherited John's ability to charm and he walks in the door beaming.
This morning we hired a sign painter to write "STEINBECK" on our gate in Nepali, as is the tradition. We stood there watching while he did it and, as he put away his can of red paint, we looked at each other in delight. No one would ever know that strange script had anything to do with our name, and we felt safe again. We would never have written it in English. Escaping the connection is part of the healing that's been occurring here.
We're on our way to Ossian's monastery in Sikkim with Hetty. Megan decided to stay behind with friends so she wouldn't miss school. Yesterday we flew to Patna, India. The endless boredom of the flat plains is a heart-wrenching contrast to the awake and vertical textures of the magical kingdom we've left behind. Like John, I've already decided I much prefer Nepal to the chaos of Mother India, whose citizens seem like spoiled children compared to my noble Nepalis. Last night, when the heat subsided, we hired a rickshaw to take us to the Ganges in the moonlight. When we arrived back at the hotel, we stopped at a bookstore next door. Suddenly the driver came up to John and slapped him on the shoulder, insisting that we owed him more money than he'd originally asked for. John pounced on him like a wildcat and shoved him up against the wall, yelling, "Don't touch me. Don't you dare ask for more money. Get out of here or I'll call the police." As the driver peddled furiously down the street, his rickshaw tilting behind him, John explained that India was a far cry from the protected enchantment of Nepal. [LC-3] was impressed by how quickly he assessed the situation. Had he stood there bargaining, a crowd would have gathered, opinions would have formed, and that's how all those Indian riots start.
At midnight, I got violently ill. Johnny heard me retching in the bathroom and called out, "Oh, you poor sweetheart. That's the loneliest sound in the world." It was true, I'd been thinking the same thing. If it weren't for his presence and his protectiveness, I would have felt like I'd been shot into a distant galaxy. India is so foreign and I missed our gentle Nepali home. My heart melted when I heard those words drifting around the cool tile floor. John always knows how to say just the right thing.
Outside our window was the most romantic courtyard, wild with flowers and ancient ruins scattered among the palms and banyans. We sat on the window seat, drinking in the cool moonlight. This morning I felt stronger and ready to tackle Mother India again.
After flying into Siliguri, we hired a leather-lined British taxi to drive us up the vertical road to Darjeeling. Past tea plantations and the small Himalayan people who plow up and down the steep 8,000-foot hillsides like sturdy Shetland ponies, past the most curious Victorian gingerbread houses built during the Raj period, all hidden and then suddenly revealed between thick fog and brilliant sunlight. Tonight we're staying at the Windermere Hotel, complete with a library and fireplaces in the rooms, yet run by Tibetans. I keep pinching myself, to think we're actually in West Bengal. It's so exotic, it's intoxicating. I feel at any moment a tiger could leap from the forest, or a maharajah could ride by on an elephant.
This morning Michael and I got up at 6:00 A.M. to look at the sunrise on Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the Himalayan range, floating over the steep hills and narrow valleys of Darjeeling. We walked around the hotel grounds till we found the best view, and there she was. She had lifted her foggy veils for us, her snows were seeped in the pink tinge of dawn, framed by the dark towering firs. We sat there for the longest time, in silence, in awe.
The distance from Darj to Cantok is 180 kilometers. We descended one steep mountain, followed the Tista River with its innocent sandy white shore; crossed the Sikkim border into a gentle land of fifteen-foot poinsettias, Day-Clo bougainvillea, and thatched huts covered with orchids; climbed another perpendicular mountainside; and there was our destination, Rumtek Monastery. Mostly we traveled in first gear. When we crossed the Tista, Johnny leaned over and whispered, "Someday we're coming back here, just you and me on the motorcycle, to camp out on that sand."
We reached the monastery courtyard at dusk. The splatters of young monks in red robes ran to crowd around us, staring at Michael's blond hair. We set off down a corridor of shadows to find Ossian, and suddenly he was there, beside us. He had a warm, slightly devilish twinkle in his eye. Since no hugs were allowed in public, he could only smile. We all piled back in the jeep for a short ride to the house where we'd be staying, and then Ossian really hugged his mother. The narrow alleys leading up to the monastery compound were filled with whispers about the Western visitors. As we climbed higher, a single sound began to swell from the shadows. "Michael, Michael-el." The Tibetans had seen the golden-haired boy and learned his name. We marveled at the speed with which he could magnetize an entire village.
We are staying with a Tibetan family in a simple house that overlooks the valley. Tonight, as we climbed into our sleeping bags, John turned on the shortwave radio and suddenly, in this remote mountain village, surrounded by Tibetan lamas and peasants, we heard the familiar lines of a BBC production of The Red Pony. We felt lineages of all kinds converging upon us, from the valley below, from the vast stretch of mountains zooming down into India, flying across China to England where some anonymous actors had gathered to read John's father's book into a microphone. Our world feels small and cozy and close to the gods in their heavens.
We have been privy to the inner workings of the political system of the Kargyu Lineage, in a very intimate way. The lamas have confided in us about their concerns for Ossian's state of mind, considering how much time he has spent away from the confines of monastic discipline. We are caught in the middle, because we know how much Hetty misses her son. We also know how much Ossian misses Western culture -- motorcycles, girls, videos, music. Hetty worries that if Ossian leaves the monastery, he will not be able to fit into the outside world. I sense a deep confusion in the boy. I fear he will not stay the course.
John had a man-to-man talk with him this morning. "I told him I was selfish. I want him to grow up and become a great teacher. Ossian knows he's in a tough position. He wants to leave, but he's also ambivalent because he knows about the myth of freedom."
This evening, we had a serious conversation with the Regents about Ossian's fate. They fear his exposure to Western temptations has spoiled him beyond repair. We asked them to give him another chance. They said the only way they could rectify the situation was if he were not allowed to see his mother anymore, because they feel she stirs up too much unrest in him when she visits. There is no easy answer in this situation, and we feel badly for everyone.
Tonight we're staying at the Tashi Deleg Hotel in Gantok. John and Michael have gone down to the marketplace to sell our tape recorder for Indian rupees to get us home tomorrow. In our Western arrogance, we assumed there would be an American Express office here, in case we needed more cash. The manager has sent up tea and biscuits and I'm looking out the window, down to the vegetable stalls hundreds of feet below the cliff side on which our hotel is perched. The tumult, the energy, shouts, flapping prayer flags, bustling, trading, all blend together in shocking contrast to the tiny silent curve of buildings I can barely see through the mist on the opposite mountain. Like Brigadoon, Rumtek Monastery sits veiled and mysterious, holding our hearts and the exotic story we left behind.
On the way back from Sikkim, at the Biratnegar Airport in Eastern Nepal, in spite of our tickets, there weren't enough seats available for us on the plane. Rather than spend the night in the funky hotel, John in his infinite Asian travel wisdom told the airline attendant that our daughter had been involved in a motorcycle accident in Kathmandu and we had to hurry home. Royal Air Nepal squeezed us on a charter flight along with a squadron of Ghurka soldiers returning from training in Hong Kong with their wives. Michael sat on the jump seat, which he loved.
Waiting for the plane, we left Michael in the coffee shop of the airport with his Pac-man and strolled out to the empty airstrip. It was there that I really got a hit of what Johnny's nine years in Asia must have felt like. In that thin winter sunlight, everything was utterly simple and unencumbered. No moving parts. I wanted to stop time then. Johnny pulled me against his chest. "You're the only person in the world whose mind I really trust."
"I feel the same about you."
That's the supreme compliment between us. Better than love you forever or you're really good in bed, it's a victorious, rock-steady love that goes beyond impermanence.
It took awhile for us to come down from the trip to Sikkim. Things seemed to be going along as usual, but as I look back on it now, full-tilt denial was reigning. John would stay up late most nights, listening to the shortwave radio or reading by the fire. Sometimes when he'd come up to bed, he seemed out of it. Whenever I asked him, he would say he was sleepy.
In the mornings, Gopal cooked breakfast. We'd say good-bye to the children after Serita had gotten them ready for school. John would fall back to sleep till noon. That gave me many hours of privacy to write in my office or practice my ngondro. We loved that routine. One mind could go off on myriad flights while the other one slept close by. One could sleep feeling totally safe because the other was there as guardian of their dreams.
Once or twice while we'd been living at the Vajra Hotel, when John seemed a bit lethargic, I suspected he had been smoking dope. After we moved to the house, a nagging feeling grew as I noticed changes in his behavior. He began to make daily trips to the Supermarket, Kathmandu's funky version of a mall. I hated the rows of tiny stalls that hawked a myriad of Western goods, mostly smuggled from Thailand and Hong Kong. The air was atomized by the pungent aroma of Nepalese plumbing. Supermarket epitomized Western greed, the window displays full of pirated cassette tapes, wristwatches, and electronic gadgetry. It was easy to score drugs there. A sly Nepali would stroll close and whisper, "Hi, you want hashish, cocaine, heroin, LSD?" If you didn't respond, he'd simply disappear in the crowd.
John started buying compulsively. Sometimes he would buy two of one thing, like the tiny Pentax cameras he brought home one day. "His and Hers," he quipped. I began to feel sad, because his life was revolving around long sleeps, visits to Supermarket, and isolated late nights. I didn't know enough about the signs of relapse to call this a symptom.
One night, my dream voice told me, Get out of bed and go downstairs. I came upon John as he was inhaling white powder from a magazine into a half-emptied cigarette. When he saw me standing in the door, he deftly flipped the magazine under the couch and smiled hello.
"What are you doing?"
"Just staring at the fire."
"What are you smoking?"
"I'm going back up to bed, and when you want to get honest with me, come up and talk." I turned and left the doorway, frozen with panic and fear. My denial dropped like a nickel in a winning slot machine.
He came right up to the bedroom and took my hand. "I'm really sorry you had to see that, but I'm glad you caught me. I've been smoking cocaine. I want to quit." It had been so long since I'd had to think about his abuses. I had been basking in months of heavenly freedom from the cunning, baffling tricks of drug addiction. Horrified and enraged, I mustered enough inspiration for a straight up Al-Anon number.
"You know what to do to quit. So, do it." I didn't rave, I didn't shame, but I let him know it had to stop immediately, foolishly thinking he had control. That's what he wanted me to believe, and I didn't know any better, yet.
Two days passed and he seemed normal. On the third day, I walked into the bedroom and entered a hell where I would dwell for the next four years. John was lying backward in the bed, naked, with his feet propped up against the huge plate-glass window. His legs were jerking spasmodically. His feral eyes didn't register recognition. Hallucinating and angry, like a trapped animal, he looked right through me. There were puddles of diarrhea on the floor. I ran downstairs and called our American doctor. It was Friday afternoon and he was on his way to a wedding reception. I begged him to come to the house immediately and alerted the staff.
"Sahib is very ill. Please take care of the children when they get back from school."
When the doctor arrived, I told him about the cocaine John had been smoking.
"Are there any drugs in the house now?" he asked.
"I don't think so."
"It may be a paratyphoid that's going around. High fever, delirium. You need to get someone to sit up with him tonight."
"Could it be withdrawal from cocaine? Can he be admitted to a hospital?"
"You don't want your husband in the Kathmandu hospital," he shook his head ruefully. "It's filthy and inadequate."
As the doctor gave John a sedative, my heart turned to stone. We were set to leave Nepal in two weeks, immediately after the school semester ended. Since our tenant's lease on the house in Boulder was not up for another month, we planned two weeks of sightseeing in Delhi, Rome, and Paris. How could we travel with this animal thrashing around, shitting on the floor? There was no way I could handle John on my own. Like a blind shark, he couldn't see me, but he smelled my terror and it made him murderous.
Frantically, I thought of a plan. The doctor's American partner was a friend of ours, married to a very tall man who had interviewed John for the tourist magazine he published. That's what I needed, an English-speaking doctor who could monitor John's symptoms and a large man to restrain him. I sensed I could count on them for help; they were ardent born-again Christians.
"Here's what I want," I said briskly. "Ask your partner and her husband to come spend the night here with John. I'm taking the kids to the Sheraton until he recovers."
We could hear him upstairs, slamming into walls. I asked the doctor to wait till Ken and Kathy arrived, packed up the children, and sent Gopal for a taxi. When Dr. Kathy and her husband arrived, we were ready to go. To my relief, Kathy agreed it sounded like drug withdrawal.
Ensconced at the nearby Everest Sheraton, we ordered room service and played cards, desperately trying to establish a ground of sanity in the midst of our shock. I had given the children a brief sketch of John's behavior, sparing them the ugly details. Long after Michael and Megan had fallen asleep, I stared across the rice fields at our darkened house. I was afraid John would die that night, perhaps sever an artery on the plate-glass window he'd been kicking. Filled with rage, terror, and a sense of betrayal, suddenly our safe little kingdom seemed hideously foreign. The exotic trappings mocked me with their inability to speak to the situation.
I prayed for protection and guidance all night. In the morning, Ken called and said it was safe to come home. To my great relief, the minute I walked into the bedroom I could tell John was himself. He apologized for putting me through the horror. Sometimes he had a candid way of copping to a situation. He did it with such bare-bones honesty that you could tell he meant it from the bottom of his heart. Whenever I heard that particular bottomed-out tone of voice, I would find the resilience to stay for one more day.
"That wasn't cocaine I was smoking," he cautioned me. "I'm withdrawing from heroin." When he got honest like that, I'd hear the plea for help, the plea not to abandon him, the plea to stay and fight the demons with him. There was still something so precious inside him. I could not walk away, not yet.
Kathy and Ken told me he had thrashed around the room all night. Thinking the antidote to his confusion was hidden in his glasses, he took a bite out of the right lens. Our wonderful Christian friends had stayed by his side, praying. Toward dawn, Kathy had gone into the bathroom and saw a huge black spider, the size of a tarantula, on the wall. Ken rushed in and killed it when he heard her scream. We looked at each other, but we didn't say it. Something evil had descended upon our home. The Steinbeck Black Hole was back.
"There's a Swedish guy named Ollie across town who runs a makeshift rehab for Westerners," Ken said. He suggested I go over there and see if they could detox John as an alternative to the dreaded hospital. Gopal went up the street to find a cab. I was relieved to have some direction, but it was a useless trip.
Ollie painted a bleak picture about John's condition. "He cannot travel. He could relapse into psychosis at any minute. You will have to leave him here with me." Several vacant- eyed hippies wandered past, lobotomized by street drugs. I remembered the young American Buddhist scholar who had lost his mind during our stay at the Vajra. I came upon him wandering, demented, in an alley behind the hotel. The desk clerk called the police, but even after several days in jail, the young man's mind was nowhere to be found. I arranged to have him sent back to the States by the consulate. It's funny how the universe trains in disaster preparedness. I was often given a dry run for the emergencies I faced to save John's life. Back in the taxi, I knew what I had to do.
This is why all our expatriate friends insist they have to return to the West at least once a year. How ironic that Mr. World Traveler is the first to succumb to Lord Jim jungle rot. We've got trouble in paradise here. We cannot linger under the pagodas a minute longer. Mother Asia is about to boot us out of our magical kingdom like a tigress. We need a clean hospital and a drug-treatment facility, American-style.
I felt myself grow bitter. I had traveled alone across the valley to Ollie's and returned to the house, alone. Alone, I begged John to go to the hospital, no matter how primitive the conditions. It was the only place I could put him where he would have no access to street drugs in order to continue his withdrawal. Alone, I got him a semiprivate room, though the procedure took five hours. During the interview, John told the nurse he had not done drugs since Vietnam. I was incensed. "Why are you lying to her? She's not a cop. She's trying to get you some help!"
John had a down parka with velcro pockets where he stashed his comb, cigarettes, lighter, and pens. When he was stoned, he'd spend hours searching his pockets, muttering to himself. He would start slapping his sides to feel for the item that had suddenly become urgently necessary. Ripping open each pocket, he'd desperately try to find whatever he was missing. You'd hear the velcro scratched apart, but within three pockets he'd forget what he'd been looking for due to short-term memory loss. The rest of the search was merely the death throes of his mind trying to remember what he wanted. He'd go through the annoying routine, first looking for a comb, then a lighter, then a pen ad nauseam. I sat there wondering if he'd be frozen in the Great Velcro Hunt for the rest of his life. He looked utterly demented. I wanted to scream. A handsome, red-robed lama passed by with an attractive Nepali woman and a small child in tow, and I distracted myself by making up a clandestine romance about them in my mind. To this day, the sound of undoing velcro sends shivers up my spine.
Years later, R. D. Laing's widow, Marguerite, shrieked with laughter when I told her that story. Ronnie would do the same thing, often at odd ends of the globe. Sometimes she'd pretend she wasn't with him, or that she was a hired nurse. "A drooler," she'd chortle. "An absolute gonzo drooler!"
John shared a hospital room with a dying elderly Tibetan. His entire family was camping out on the floor, cooking, chatting, grieving. Several days later, after he died, they replaced him with a raving American hippie who was coming down off speedballs. That guy never shut up.
"He's annoying, but he's also a lesson," John said meekly. "There but for the grace of your intervention."
Michael confirmed his words as we left the hospital. "You know, Mom, if it weren't for us, John would be just like that crazy guy." We noticed they had given John and the hippie the same diagnosis, Psychosis/Diarrhea, posted on the door.
Unfortunately, the Nepali form of detox was enough Valium to arouse John's disease to full-blown proportions. Although he was quite chipper when he left the hospital a week later, I sensed the desperate animal scratching under his skin. My blood ran cold watching him do his Maurice Chevalier number as he said good-bye to the nurses. Terrified to return home for fear the Black Hole was still lurking, I had remained at the Sheraton with Megan and Michael. As John and I entered our bedroom for the first time since that harrowing event, a terrible weakness possessed me. The demons were still there. I collapsed on the bed and spat out, "This place makes me sick. Once again, you have turned our home into a bedpan. We've still got a week before our flight to Delhi. I'm going to a hotel till we leave Nepal. I am never setting foot in this house again."
Instead of the impersonal Sheraton, I purposely chose the Dwarika Hotel, owned by a stern, no-nonsense woman who was also the Swiss consulate. I knew that the Spartan atmosphere would force John to keep it together until our departure. I breathed a sigh of relief when I noticed she didn't grovel over his name as he signed the register. My instincts had been right; she maintained a suspicious distance from us, and I didn't blame her.
That was when I lost my will. Dysentery swept over me, wringing ten pounds off my body. I lay in bed delirious, filled with hatred and resentment for John. I wouldn't talk to him. I was outraged that he could mindlessly trash our precious time in Nepal. Had I been more practiced in Al-Anon's wisdom, I would not have ranted at him for spoiling my heaven. I would have tried not to shame him. It would take me years to understand that heaping guilt on an addict only prevents him from feeling the full effect of his own remorse. The self- discipline of a veteran Al-Anon is staggering, and I was still a novice.
Just before we left Boulder, I asked Rinpoche for advice about the trip. He predicted that we would be forced to come home prematurely. Throughout the year, part of me had stayed vigilant, wondering what he meant. Now I understood.
John's liver-function tests showed a high level of uric acid, which, along with the drugs, explained his erratic behavior. I was desperate for the comfort of my support group in Boulder. Despite the fact that we still had two weeks to kill until we could return home, I felt that returning to the Western world would ease the burden of being in a country that had no understanding of John's condition. I was also concerned about the color of his skin. He had turned a peculiar shade of greenish bronze, which delighted the Tibetans. "Oh," they'd exclaim, stopping him on the street. "You look just like us."
By the time our plane left Kathmandu, I felt as relieved to be leaving Shangri-la as I had longed every day to stay there forever. I also felt curiously victorious. John often quoted Kipling, something about how you can't hustle the East. I hadn't. Facing the challenge of making myself at home in that relentlessly foreign culture, I had succeeded in finding and befriending myself. I had written, explored, and practiced. I quit smoking because the Nepali tobacco tasted like burning yak hair, and I discovered a wellspring of sanity and cheerfulness in my being. I had learned how to travel the world, and had transmitted that ability to my children, so that wherever we are on this planet, we feel at home. I was proud of myself. Compared to Mr. I've-Been-Around-the-World-Four-Times, I felt grace about my Nepali life, as opposed to his disgraceful undoing.
On our last night in Kathmandu, Khentse Rinpoche blessed our thankas, Tibetan scroll paintings. We had seen Khentse many times in Boulder and visited with him whenever he came to Nepal. He was one of the last great lamas, dripping compassion like a fat mother sow. We brought along our Tibetan friend, Tsering, whom we had met at the Phokara refugee camp. He was in awe of Khentse, as if he were the Wizard of Oz.
As Khentse printed the traditional sacred symbols of empowering mantras on the backs of the painting, I thought long and hard about this man's supposed wisdom. Here I am in the presence of a great lama. What does he know about heroin addiction? What advice could he give me about traveling with John? He did not dwell in the realm where opium poppies grew. I was on my own.
Where did all that magic and mystery get us in the end? There would be no miracles ahead, not for years, as John's disease progressed like wildfire. What good was any of it, I wondered, as I saw Tsering act as if he weren't worthy to be in the same room with Khentse. He had even gone outside to wash his feet in the dewy grass before entering the shrine room.
Was I hypnotized by the Valley, seduced by the fervid religiosity that hangs in the air? Is everyone in the Silver Jade Kingdom buzzed by a confluence of spirits, high on the realm where Absolute Truth can never bend so low as to touch Relative Suffering? What good has all the bliss and peace done? We are worse off than when we started. In the depths of my dilemma, I forgot how slowly evolution works, like the rings around a tree trunk.
John wanted to stick to our plan of sightseeing until the lease on our house was up. More crippled than any previous time in our lives together, we limped through Delhi. In my grief process, I had moved through shock and rage in Kathmandu. Depression settled in Delhi, where it was so hot, the hotel swimming pool was a tepid soup. One afternoon, friends from Boulder came to take me to lunch as John rested. At last, I could share our crisis with a Western mind. They were appalled at what I had gone through and the unknown territory that lay ahead. Nevertheless, when her Tibetan husband left the table, Betty whispered, "Noedup is having a hard time relating to John because he's not drinking. He feels awkward." I felt surrounded by lunacy.
Wanly, I tried to enjoy the Raj atmosphere at the Imperial Hotel. The children and I set off valiantly every day to sightsee. Unbeknownst to us, that's when John would duck down to the nearest drugstore to purchase over-the-counter Valium. I smelled a rat when I noticed he was buying compulsively again and seemed groggy. Five pairs of eyeglasses and twenty dress shirts later, we were up at 3:00 A.M. for our flight to Rome. On our way to the airport, with a set jaw and a sinking feeling, I did get one last exotic hit as we passed six camels walking down the freeway, bound for the marketplace. As John slipped into the duty-free shop with Megan, Michael and I went on to board the plane. Mercifully, we were flying business class, with long reclining seats and more clout than steerage, as I discovered when I had to ask the flight attendant to hold the plane till John appeared.
If the slogans say "Let go and Let God" or "Live and Let Live," would I be practicing Al- Anon if I let the plane take off without John? Had Megan not been with him, I might have risked it. I could not ignore the aching certainty that if John and I didn't make it back to Boulder together, he would die.
Rome was the worst. The minute we got off the plane, John started playing Papa Steinbeck-on-a-trip-with-his-family. Surreptitiously scoring more Valium, he postured and posed on the boulevards and in hotel lobbies. I wanted to strangle him. As we showed the children the Colosseum, the Forum, the Catacombs, John blamed his grogginess on "Italian vegetable tranquilizers." He fell asleep wherever we stopped, in restaurants, on benches, on the grass near the Palatine Hill. The children were embarrassed and confused. I explained as best I could, and cursed the fact that we were stuck in tourist limbo until our lease was up.
To my relief, I discovered Rome had Al-Anon meetings. In my broken understanding of Italian, the words I heard helped me formulate a plan. One night, a heavy dose of Valium triggered a heroin flashback in John. Delirious, sleepwalking, he arose and pissed in the corner of our pensione bedroom. I woke to the stench.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for the bathroom," he muttered sheepishly. He stopped mid-stream, went over to the toilet, and pissed all over it. I reached out to feel his forehead when he got back in bed. He wasn't feverish. He was tripping. I was alone again, except for my prayers. I thought of calling Thom and Elaine, but I knew they'd be of no help. They'd probably tell me to leave him here and I don't want to explain that I can't. In the morning, I phoned the American Embassy. They sent over an English-speaking doctor. By this time John was drooling, burning cigarette holes in the sheets. The doctor talked him into going to a mental hospital, which he euphemistically referred to as a sanitarium.
We set out in a taxi for Belvedere Montello, in the Roman suburbs. As a discreet attendant took John up to his room, I noticed it was a locked facility. That was not going to sit well with him, but his moods were no longer my problem. As I filled out the insurance papers, the head psychiatrist asked about John's name.
"Oh, the son of Steinbeck!" he crooned rhapsodically.
That and a nickel will get you to the point where you need your own rubber room, you idiot.
"Would you like to go up and see his quarters and say good-bye?" he asked graciously. I could tell he hadn't understood one iota of what I had been through in the last two weeks. It wasn't a language problem. He was so mesmerized by the Steinbeck thing, he couldn't hear me. Disgusted, I had to repress the urge to scream, No! He's all yours. You can wipe up the drool and the shit and venom. I'm out of here.
The poor shrink seemed to think I should be kissing the ground John walked on because of his father. "We'll take very good care of him," the good doctore promised, as if John were a living treasure. I stood with the children at the gate, waiting for the electronic buzzer to open the lock. It was an old palazzo and the grounds were beautiful, but the empty swimming pool gaped forlorn and abandoned, like the puzzled inmates who wandered amongst the voluptuous statuary.
During John's stay, I was determined the children would not miss out on any of the Roman history, art, or culture, no matter what we had been through. We wandered around the city, trying to be cheerful in the face of grave worries. In the evening we would visit him.
On the fourth day, Johnny wanted to come back to the pensione with us, promising Signor Doctore he would return by dinner. John had enough wits about him to sense we needed to spend time alone. We left the children on a street they wanted to explore and arranged for them to meet me under a tall clock on the corner.
John and I sat at a sidewalk cafe near the Spanish Steps and kept our conversation in the moment, as we always did after those fiascos. My rage was worn to a nub; I wanted to share Rome with my aristocratic Johnny and forget about the gonzo drooler. He asked me to ride back to the sanitarium so we could linger in an embrace. The world wasn't feeling exactly like my oyster, but hope springs eternal in the heart of a rookie Al-Anon.
Terror returned when I couldn't find the children at the appointed clock tower. I had a feeling something was terribly wrong, and I wasn't sure if they remembered the name of our hotel. The taxi driver shared my concern. We drove up and down the long boulevard three times. "Madonna," he would exhale under his breath, praying as if he had lost his own children. Finally, an hour later, he remembered there were two identical clock towers on that street. We found my poor waifs, looking like abandoned kittens. That's it. I'm not going to be an idiot anymore. We are strangers still, in a strange land, and if I don't stay on top of things, disaster will strike. Nothing is going to come between me and the children during the rest of this trip, not even John's ridiculous flirtation with death. Thank God they are with me again, safe and sound. They are the only sanity I have in the swamp of John's dementia and my own frenzy.
Upon his return that evening, John finagled a Valium drip. Several days later, he insisted on leaving against the doctor's orders. To my dismay, when I came to pick him up, he was more loaded then when he'd entered. I didn't bother confronting doctore's ineptness in dealing with drug withdrawal. This would not be the first time I experienced John coming out of a hospital detox flying on tranquilizers. Tests showed severe liver damage, which they feared may have permanently affected his brain. His ammonia levels were six times higher than normal, causing confusion and bizarre behavior. The doctors told me if John left, he could go into tranquilizer withdrawal and, combined with the ammonia levels, he might end up in a coma. True to his death-dance, John stubbornly refused further treatment. I knew it was hopeless to convince him otherwise; the animal was surfacing again, scratching at his skin, clawing its way out. He glared at me, daring a confrontation so he could rip me apart with his vicious blame as if the situation were my fault. Denial and blame is the name of his game.
I was beginning to understand the tightrope act he played with me, how he watched my safety net with cunning. When the net got pulled, he actually became quite docile. This gave me the courage to insist he find another hotel for the night. I simply could not bear the pressure of being responsible for his health for one moment longer. I needed a break, even if he went into a coma during the night. He meekly checked into a hotel down the block, oblivious to my worries and prayers for his safekeeping through the lonely, sleepless hours. I thought bitterly of all the times Thom had cruelly mocked my pleas for John to stop drinking and drugging. If I called Thom, he would only protest that he is not his brother's keeper. Why is it solely up to me to grapple with this madness? Let go and let God ... grant me the serenity ... the courage and wisdom ....
In the morning, I woke to a knock at the door. Certain it was the police with the worst possible news, a sheepish John surprised me.
"I'm ready to get off Valium. I can detox on my own." I burst into tears, grateful he had made it through the night. Secretly, I noted that a healthy dose of Al-Anon detachment can work wonders.
After several blessedly uneventful days, we felt brave enough to take the train south to Positano. Steinbeck had taken Thom and John there and he wanted to relive the memories. It was a glorious train ride, and I prayed the tide might be turning as our hired car glided along the Amalfi coast, past pink stone villas dappled by the afternoon sunlight.
Unfortunately, our hotel's manager was another one of those fawning spinsters. Like a moth to flame, I watched her fan the dying embers of John's ego. Within two days, he was back to aping his father, parading up and down the village streets as if he had just won the Nobel Prize. To add to the masquerade, when the tourist department filled our room with flowers in memory of Steinbeck's visit twenty years ago, John confused the gesture with adulation toward himself. For what? An award for pissing in the corners of assorted Roman pensiones? As I quietly watched John forget where he stopped and his father started, I decided it was time to remove myself physically, come what may. The culture shock of having left our magical kingdom and the burden of John's health was driving me insane.
Once we were back in Rome, I sensed John wanted more over-the-counter Valium. I sought a direction. I had been a Thomas Mann buff in college, and wanted to see the places described in Death in Venice. Knowing John disliked Venice's tourist trap aspect, I chose to escape there with the children for several days. Although I was haunted by the chaos of our situation, I started piecing together a sense of reality. We still had ten days to kill before our tenant moved out. It was up to me to orchestrate them. I decided we would meet John in Paris and limp through France for a while.
On the last night in Venice, he called me, freaking out. "I bought some gorgeous Fumi jewelry for your birthday. I showed it to the concierge yesterday. When I woke up, it was gone." He had ripped the room apart and then accused the hotel staff. "I told them I was going out for breakfast and when I got back, the stuff better be in my room." They must have figured he meant it, because when he returned, they claimed to have found it under the mattress.
Although he never made it there, John referred to those final days in Europe as his Death in Venice period. To me, Gustav with his makeup and his sirocco had nothing on John's disintegration. For some reason, the missing jewelry incident shocked John into staying sober in Paris. The withdrawal symptoms, along with his liver disease, had exhausted him. The city was crawling with tourists, but I managed to show the children the important sights. We spent hours at the Louvre. After a morning at the Jeu de Pommes art museum, John met us there for lunch. I caught sight of him strolling through the park, wearing an elegant new three-piece suit, lost in the fantasy of being a great writer, swinging his umbrella to the rhythm of his boulevardier strut. When he saw us, he seemed to wake from a dream. We knew only too well who he was, and the familiarity disoriented him.
By the time we arrived in New York, I was racing to get John to his physician. Something was terribly wrong, more than the progression of his addictions. His mind was not functioning. Usually his thought process was stellar, no matter how many chemicals he ingested. His skin had a peculiar bronze cast. It took ten days to receive the diagnosis. They told us he had liver cancer; that it would be a matter of weeks before he was dead. They ordered a biopsy and John immediately locked himself up with a case of Johnny Walker in the Boulderado, hoping to beat death's agenda. His doctor, with the bedside manner of Leona Helmsley, ordered me to prepare for widowhood.
[LC-1] Well, obviously he's been there, in which case he is very egotistical as well as a big liar, or else he is just spouting some nonsense that someone else said, without knowing the truth of it. He's very clever in phrasing his words as if he's a skeptic of the "spiritual" path!
[LC-2] This was obviously a different Nepal than the one I was in in 2000. It was so filthy and polluted and disease-ridden that when I got in the airplane to leave Kathmandu after 3-1/2 months, I thought, "Thank God, even if I was to explode in the air right above Kathmandu, at least I have gotten away from this horrible place."
[LC-3] The exact same thing happened to me and a bunch of people coming back from a party hosted by Lama Choki Nyima in Kathmandu. Why are the Steinbecks pushing this ridiculous Shangri-la myth?