When I was a young teen, I wanted to dance with the Hare Krishnas at LAX, offer flowers, bang a tambourine and sing. Mostly, I wanted to shock my parents by doing something radical, but I also wanted a part of that pure joy I thought I saw on the Krishnas’ faces as they tried to hand me a book, Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, and a flower, a white carnation, while my mother and father hurried me along to the departure gate, so we wouldn’t miss our plane to Indiana where we were travelling to visit my father’s sister, my Aunt Sue, who was suffering from cancer and worrying about her son.
When we made it to Indianapolis, I sat with Aunt Sue in a Northside bar. “She is underage,” the bartender said, but Sue who knew how to argue with barkeeps said, “I have cancer, and she is my niece who flew all the way from California to see me.” I could hear the wistful sound of the Pacific in her voice. The barkeep shrugged. It was the 1970’s and no one cared.
Being underage, I was thrilled to sit in a bar with Aunt Sue and take secret sips from her whisky and soda. “Whiskey helps with the chemo,” she said winking at me, her wig a bit askew from the sweat of a Midwestern summer afternoon. Her son, my cousin Mike, had been in a cult for a while, and I looked up to him in blind admiration no matter what he did – cult, a night in jail, hallucinating on acid, it was all the same to me.
“You know, Thoreau spent a night in jail and look at what he wrote about it later,” I can hear my father saying now.
Mike was my big cousin and I looked up to him, and though everyone called him Little Mike, since there was an older Mike in the family as well, to me both Mikes were Big Mikes, and I was smitten with anyone even slightly older who had the spirit of wildness and adventure. I yearned for freedom that I believed was theirs and what they did, these older cousins, almost always seemed like a good idea to me.
He was in some kind of Jesusy cult, my aunt Sue told me over her whisky. “Why can’t he just be happy as a Jew? Why a Jew for Jesus? They are the worst,” and Sue nearly spit.
I thought Jesus was cute with his long wild hair and rebellious soul, and his breathtaking suffering was mesmerizing, and wasn’t he one of us, another suffering Jew? Didn’t all Jews suffer? Wasn’t that what my parents meant when they talked about the Holocaust in hushed tones? My mother talked of a friend who had been in the camps and had told her stories of being forced to stand in the freezing cold all night on one foot and if you fell you would be shot. My mother told me this story many times over the years and finally on her deathbed told it to me one last time in a childlike whisper, then weakly asked, “How can people do that to each other, Resa? I don’t understand.”
And wasn’t Jesus a Rabbi, a teacher like my father was, and so what was wrong about cousin Mike being for Jesus, how could anyone be against Jesus? I didn’t get it, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
One day, many months before this trip to Indiana, Mike came to our LA apartment with someone from his cult, a quiet man wearing a long-sleeved white shirt who sat next to Mike on our living room sofa as they both politely drank the soda my mother offered them poured into jelly jars frosted over from the ice, Mike looking what I have come to realize over the years as beatific with his longish hair and glazed-over heavenward eyes. I sat across from them and sipped a Fresca as my father assessed the situation. Did Mike need to be kidnapped, deprogrammed, woken up? Woken up to what?
A month ago he was selling light-up yo-yos on Hollywood Boulevard. Was that reality better than this one? He hadn’t been smiling then. I tried to get Mike’s attention, but he was silently moving his lips. He seemed to be praying or tripping.
By summer, he was back in Indy, had been in trouble of one sort or another, and I never found out if he had lost his faith if he ever had had it, or if the cult had just for whatever reason kicked him out before he could be kidnapped, deprogrammed, woken up.
Decades later, in New York City, before leading the room in chanting the Mahamantra, otherwise known as “the Hare Krishna chant,” the musician and Kirtan singer Krishna Das said to us, “This is the only mantra in the world with a bad reputation.” And then he sang:
“Hare Krishna hare Krishna Krishna Krishna hare hare hare Rama hare Rama Rama Rama hare hare….”
I found myself chanting along and wondered what my parents would have said if they had still been on this earth to hear me chanting the bad rep mantra.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a Krishna follower dancing at an airport and offering flowers, but last summer in Moscow at Novokuznetskaya metro, a young Krishna follower standing by himself on the crowded street at a rush hour dizzy with heat called out to me and offered me a book. I translated the Russian title to myself: Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. The boy was smiling or tripping, and looked a little like my cousin Mike. Beatific. What a word. I took the book this time, as if by the act of reading it, I could know what he and cousin Mike had seen.
Resa Alboher is an editor of St. Petersburg Review, and has had work published in Scapegoat Review, The Edison Literary Review, and in The Breath of Parted Lips, Voices from the Frost Place, Volume 2. She is thrilled to have another piece appearing in Black Heart Magazine and invites everyone to visit her home in the virtual world of the blogosphere, which can be found at climbmountfuji.com. Her home in the somewhat less virtual, but not in the least less surreal world, is in the old center of Moscow, Russia.