Who says a white girl can’t say namaste?
They ate expensively and they tipped extraordinarily well, but what really made me love them was how they wrapped me into their conversation every time I returned to the table with more rolls or a fresh round of drinks. They acted like I had just stepped away for a moment but was one of their party, and, best of all, like I was the most fascinating one based on how they seemed to love it when I came back, asking me what I thought of this and what I thought of that each time. What was I studying? What was it like to grow up in the Midwest? Was I wearing braids tied up on the top of my head because I was of German descent? It gratified me immensely because I was working hard on being fascinating, with costumery and role playing a key part of the effort.
But while I loved their (big-hearted) attention, what I really wanted was their peacefulness, their serenity. They were so at ease in the world they floated. What’s more, they floated in from all over, places like New York City and London, alighting smack dab in the middle of the heartland.
The floating influx of peaceful people had been going on for several years, ever since the Maharishi had blown into town and taken over the defunct Parson’s College in Fairfield, Iowa, about 30 minutes down the road. They got right to work building a levitation dome and with that it became The Maharishi University.
The culture merge raised some questions. Midwesterners are a tolerant, decent people by and large, but it was hard to know what to make of this. We’re down-to-earth — corn is grown here — and that dome was really high. Do they seriously float all the way up there?
But I knew one thing. I wanted to float. I didn’t necessarily want to levitate, but I wanted to float around in life, filled with the kind of peace that vanquishes twitchy agitation and existential angst. And I wanted their particular kind of peace because you could tell it wasn’t cheap peace, the kind you smoke or the kind you are born with a natural inclination for (and for which you deserve no credit). Theirs was a wise peace, a peace that has been earned by pilgrimages, by going into the dark night of the soul, by heading straight into the fire and walking out free. This was the interesting, fascinating peace achieved by interesting, fascinating people that I was after, though later in life I would have stooped for the cheap kind, the naturally inclined kind, and gratefully side-stepped the fire.
After a year of watching them and waiting on them, I couldn’t take it anymore. Peace was too much to resist. I decided to go for it and snuck off to the Maharishi, having signed up for a beginner-level meditation class. I told no one, quietly taking myself down the road in the blue Ford Pinto wagon I shared with two of my siblings, feeling very peculiar.
We sat in a circle on the floor in a room. That’s what I remember and know for sure about the environment, though in my mind the instructor wore a long, flowing robe and a white turban — a shadow of doubt cast over this part, however, given my overly stimulated state. There’s a good chance stray movie images got swept up in the scenery.
We were each given a personal mantra and a white hankerchief and were told to tell no one our mantra — ever — because it was personal to us, mine meant only for me.
Beyond that I don’t know what all went on in that room. Coming from white bread, Presbytarian stock I was pretty freaked out and after class fled, never returning to complete beginner meditation.
But white bread or not, something in the Eastern traditions speak to me. That’s just the way it is and it will out so I eventually found my way back to meditation and also yoga, along with ample splashes of Buddhist wisdom. And while I’m now entirely at home meditating, doing yoga and reading books based on Budhhist philosophy — man, do they get the big problem of the mind — there is a wall I still can’t get over.
It’s the namaste thing. You can’t go to a yoga class without the instructor tipping forward at the end, hands pressed together at heart center, sending us on our way with a “namaste.” The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.
The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you?
Right on, man. I am so right on with the divine in me acknowledging the divine in you but can’t we just think it? Do we have to say it? I can even get around the bow thing, a touching and honest gesture and I’m willing to tip over a wee bit, but say namaste? I just feel like a total fraud. A pretender. A person not just crossing an illegitimate line but worse, committing a violation.
Then something unexpected happened 15 years ago when Amy married Drew. She started regularly going out on the water in a boat because Drew fishes and has boats, so forever after Amy and Drew became a pair, they’d wheel into the family reunion in a Suburban, pulling a 18-foot flat-bottom Tuffy bass boat.
Big trucks and boats? I couldn’t wrap my head around this. We’re not water people!
Nevertheless, with the boats and the water a question gradually began to assume a shape in my consciousness: can we just cross over like that?
A friend and I sit in a bar and hash this out. When is a cross-over acceptable? We cook other culture’s food, which is a no-brainer, thank god, because oh my god, is pizza a good idea. And there’s just no question that sharing art is one of the most beautiful cross-cultural gifts there is, but should just anybody be rapping?
What about wearing clothes from another culture, like cowboy boots and a cowboy hat on a city slicker?
My sister-in-law eats Stilton cheese, favors British mystery novels and generally identifies with the English culture, despite growing up in Maryland. I love this about her. But what if she talked with an English accent and said words like “telly” and “boot?”
And of course, there’s religion. Some conversions seem to go down easier than others, whether that’s fair or not.
And then there is the issue of what some people may be able to get away with while others can’t. My friend tells a story about a talent show she recently attended. A white woman got up and sang, “When you’re black you’ve got a target on your back.” Can you do that? Can you take on the pain or are you just allowed to feel it from a respectful distance? The lady was terrible and my friend was horrified, but would anything have changed if she had talent?
There’s just something against-nature-seeming about moving in and latching onto someone else’s culture, as if you’re taking their property and attempting to become the new them. Is that what’s going on? It raises the question as to how much room can be made before a breach in integrity is committed. It’s all so confusing, all the more because we often hear exhortations to “be who you are!” But do we really mean it? Do we really buy that a person growing up Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch Country can authentically dance Flamenco if that’s what is in her heart and soul. Maybe the big mix-up, the big discrepancy is the Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch Country part and Flamenco dancing is the correction.
It’s a dilemma. But interestingly, 15 years after Drew brought boats into the family and one Clayton got redefined as a water person, it would now seem weird and wrong to visit them in Wisconsin and not boat across the lake for dinner. Cuz that’s what we Claytons do now. At least when we’re in Wisconsin.
It’s murky water and I can see there’s a difference between assuming a culture’s pain and boating across the lake, but it makes me wonder if you do something long enough — rap, wear cowboy boots, say telly instead of TV, convert to Catholicism, become a new citizen in a new country or cross cultures in all the ways we may just simply be called — then maybe you honestly made it to the other side. If you float long enough, maybe you are christened again with an additional layer.
I wonder how long you have to give it? I wonder, how long does it take to get to be who you are?
I think every brave step gets us closer as we feel our way. And I think I’ve dog paddled around in these waters long enough to get to say namaste. I’m owning it, man.
To you I say, the divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.
Amy — my sister
Drew — my brother-in-law
Sharon — my sister-in-law
Timeframe — 1983 – present
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out.