Getting My Mantra

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In early 1975 I transferred to Franklin College, a tiny Baptist school in central Indiana where I knew no one. I began slowly to win acceptance into the “hippie circle,” the small subset of the 700 on-campus students who smoked pot, read Kurt Vonnegut, and otherwise identified with libertine youth culture. It was through them that I learned Transcendental Meditation was coming to town. For $60 and a gift of flowers for the guru, I could be given a mantra and taught to use it for meditation.

I was coming off a crazy-making period of my life. That first semester at Indiana University had sent me spiraling into chaos, under the confusing influence of a course in Eastern Religions. The Zen-like simplicity of campus life at Franklin was starting to knit me back together. Surely meditating with a mantra would speed the process. And besides, all the kids were doing it. But where would I come up with $60 and the flowers for the guru?

The money was there if I scrimped; I received a monthly SSI check (due to my father’s breakdown two years before) and had no expenses to speak of, since girls didn’t need to buy their own pot—just drop by the boys’ dorm and find a circle toking up. But flowers? I was stumped by that request. I didn’t even know where a florist’s shop might be located in Franklin. On the other hand, it was late April, full spring. Beds of well-tended flowers were blooming all over the tidy little campus.

I dropped by the meeting hall and added my name to the list of applicants for the TM training, wherein I would be taught a meditation routine and, in a private session with the guru, given my own personalized mantra.

When the appointed time arrived, I put on my best bell-bottoms and embroidered shirt. As I left the girl’s dorm, I stopped in the bathroom and grabbed two paper towels, moistening one. On my way to the training, held upstairs over the chapel, I passed a big bed of daffodils in full flower. With an inexpert twist, I snapped one after another until I held a bouquet of a dozen yellow blossoms in my hand. I wrapped the bases first in the moist towel, then the dry one, and proceeded to the meeting room. My $60 were harvested at the door. I was told to give my flowers to the guru when my turn came.

Maybe a half dozen of my hippie peers were already gathered for the TM training. We were told to sit cross-legged and empty our minds. Then one by one, we were taken from the group and led to a small side room where the guru waited.

I handed him my bouquet. He spoke one word to me. It had one syllable. That syllable sounded like the crackle from a radio tuned between stations. It felt like the zing of hitting a funny bone. It smelled like frying electrical wires. It tasted like tinfoil and smoke. I couldn’t even see it on the blackboard in my head where perfect spelling always appeared; there was no equivalent in the English language.

I had a mantra now, and I hated it. I tried using it, tried meditating for 20 minutes, morning and evening. I gave it a good shot. But by the time the spring semester ended, so had my foray into TM. My mantra and I just could not come to peace.

 

Decades later I asked my husband Jim what his mantra was. About the same year I did, and for about the same reasons, he had ventured across Madison from the U.W. campus to a strange land known as Willy Street, to find an Ananda Marga house where meditation and mantras were being offered, free of charge or obligation. He brought no money and no bouquet of flowers, stolen or otherwise.

Even though all meditation training seems to include an injunction not to tell anyone your mantra, he told me his. I loved it at once. It had two syllables, one round and framed by soft stops, perfect for in-breath, and one loose like a sigh to carry the out-breath. It sounded like a horse’s gentle nicker. It felt like a warm blanket. It smelled like chai and tasted like a bran muffin. Its spelling appeared on my mental blackboard in a neat cursive script. When I repeated it I felt a pearlescent bubble form around me, like the inside of a genie’s bottle.

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Did my guru know my flowers were stolen? Was his stinking lousy mantra my penalty for coming to TM with a tarnished heart? I had to wonder. Of all the lessons learned in college, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the longest is, Do not cheat on your mantra. And by extension, an even more important lesson—simply, do not cheat.

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A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To The Mikvah

by Melodee Leven Currier

According to Jewish law, a child is considered Jewish only if the mother is Jewish because you always know who the mother is, but you don’t always know who the father is.  My parents were like Bridget Loves Bernie — she was Irish, he was Russian Jewish.  I was somewhere in the middle.

It wasn’t important until I was engaged to marry my Jewish fiancé.  I was told I would need to convert to Judaism if we were going to get married in his Temple.  So we began taking conversion classes which were also attended by a few other couples planning to tie the knot.  The number of classes weren’t pre-determined — the Rabbi said he would let us know when each of us was ready to take the “plunge.”   After a couple months of classes, he determined I was ready for my visit to the Mikvah, which is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion.

The Rabbi told me he preferred me to be naked at the ritual.  I thought he was being a dirty old man and I insisted on wearing my two piece bathing suit.  I made it very clear that I was not going to be naked.

When the rabbi picked me up at my apartment to go to the Mikvah, I hurriedly grabbed my bathing suit and towel and we were off.  The Mikvah was at a private home which had an indoor pool created for conversion.  It was complete with a changing room and a wall so the Rabbi couldn’t see the converter in the pool.

In the changing room, as I reached for my bathing suit I was horrified when I realized I didn’t bring the bottom of my suit.   I don’t know if I was more embarrassed that I was now going to have to go nude or because I made such a big deal about it.  The Rabbi got his wish.  As I put a towel around my body and started walking out of the changing room, the Rabbi gave me a strange look and said I needed a larger towel.  A young man who lived in the house got one for me.

As I walked toward the pool, I could see that the rabbi was on the other side of the wall, but he couldn’t see me.  Whew!  I removed my towel and got in the refreshing water.  That wasn’t so bad!  The rabbi asked me to totally immerse myself three times in the water and recite the blessings, after him, in Hebrew.   That was the turning point.

From there, we hurried to the Temple where my fiancé and the Beit Din (a rabbinical court of three men) were waiting.  The three men asked me questions to determine my sincerity in living according to Jewish law.  We had a short, meaningful, ceremony and the Rabbi gave me my Hebrew name of “Zimrah,” meaning music, melody, song.

Years later I learned that it is Jewish custom, not just the rabbi’s preference, to be converted in the Mikvah while naked.  As it turned out, if I wanted to convert to Judaism I didn’t have a choice.  God works in mysterious ways!

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 © 2014 Melodee Currier

Mel Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles
can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com.

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If you’re going to change the names, change the names…

Publisher to Make a Change in Lena Dunham’s Book — A New York Times article on 12/10/14 reported that a chapter in Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl has caused a kerfluffle. Seems that a guy named Barry thinks he’s the guy she identified as “Barry” and described as a rapist in her book is recognizable as him. Quoting from the article:

On Monday, Random House said it would make changes to the e-book and to future printings of physical editions to clarify that the man Ms. Dunham describes isn’t named Barry, and offered to pay the Oberlin graduate’s legal fees.

“As indicated on the copyright page of ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ by Lena Dunham, some names and identifying details in the book have been changed. The name ‘Barry’ referenced in the book is a pseudonym. Random House, on our own behalf and on behalf of our author, regrets the confusion,” the statement said.

If you’re going to say you changed the names, it’s best to actually change them before you publish your memoir.

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An Ode to Neville

By Jules Sanderson

This is a reflective piece, looking back at my time as a student, sharing a house with one of my best friends.

We are best friends, bonded together in that intense, competitive form female friendships sometimes take on. Back at university after four months apart, we’ve both changed in each other’s absence but neither can admit it. We don’t fit together as well as we used to but to say that out loud is too much, would lead to too much, so instead we go to the corner shop and buy cheap vodka which we drink in the living room that doesn’t feel like ours yet. We are nineteen years old when we move into the house on Neville Street.

My room has been painted a bright sunshine yellow and when I wake up hungover, which is a lot, it confuses me. One time I lose my favourite dress for three days, only to find it under the kitchen table. Another time I throw up in the hallway on the way out to a party. We never clean it up because it’s only wine and you like to point out the stain when people come round.

You do exercise videos and I jump around behind you, feeling giddy and happy and young. One night you burst into my room and jump on top of me in bed and I love you. Then you fall down the stairs and when I pick you up there is a man sitting at our kitchen table that you forgot you bought home. He steals your iPod although you don’t realise until days later. Builders come and knock down the wall in your bedroom which someone (not us) has punched a hole through. White plaster dust covers everything even when we close our doors and we wake up with it coating our eyelashes and eyebrows, suddenly our Grandmothers overnight. It coats the walls like chalk and we draw clumsy pictures in it when we’re drunk.

I take your food from the fridge even though you get so mad and we eat fishfinger sandwiches with ketchup. You fry them in a pan while I put them under the grill and we both think the other is crazy. When I’m too drunk to go to bed and the world is spinning you sit with me next to the toilet and sing a nursery rhyme about crossing the Irish Sea. We think being drunk makes us grown-ups but all it really does is turn us back into children. We hold hands and skip along the pavement. Your room is dark, like a cave, and there are clothes all over the floor. You put my hair up in a beehive and I feel like a Bond girl. It is so cold I sometimes sleep in my coat and we stay in bed too long because it hurts when our feet touch the floor. I wake up in my clothes from last night and don’t change before I walk into the living room because I feel no shame.

You make me try balsamic vinegar and teach me how to make chocolate sauce from Nutella and milk. You lose your ID and I give you my passport which they confiscate because you don’t know your own middle name. I never get it back and I’m so angry because I know yours is Simone. One morning after the night before I puke into the kitchen sink all over our dirty dishes and you laugh and laugh.

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© 2014  Jules Sanderson is a freelance writer based in London. She drinks a lot of coffee and stares out of a lot of windows. Follow Jules at her blog Things on Toast. Follow her on Twitter: @thingsontoast.

There’s something universal about youthful bad behavior. The absence of a year or place in Jules’ essay just heightens its effect–as a reader you can’t say, “well, that was then” or “things aren’t like that here.” The lack of a resolution and the absence of judgement (in several senses) in Jules’ essay raises questions that linger. Every piece of autobiographical writing stitches a zigzag line between the unique and the universal, as Jules’ essay does.  -Sarah White

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Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, by Steve Luxenberg

It’s been a while since I posted a book review! Life hasn’t allowed me much time for reading. But at the recent Association of Personal Historians conference, Steve Luxenberg presented a keynote about Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secretin which he described a writing process driven by obsessive detective work, investigating a gripping moral dilemma that faces more of us than you might think. I bought his book. Finished it this morning.

Quoting from Luxenberg’s website:

Part memoir, part detective story, part history, Annie’s Ghosts revolves around three main characters (my mom, her sister and me as narrator/detective/son), several important secondary ones (my grandparents, my father and several relatives whom I found in the course of reporting on the book), as well as Eloise, the vast county mental hospital where my secret aunt was confined—despite her initial protestations—all of her adult life.

As I try to understand my mom’s reasons for hiding her sister’s existence, readers have a front-row seat to the reality of growing up poor in America during the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when the nation’s “asylums” had a population of 400,000 and growing.

annies ghost coverI found the book an enjoyable read; some of my colleagues said they couldn’t put it down, tore through it on the plane home from the conference, stayed up all night to finish–and at 358 pages not counting appendix, that’s quite a testament to Luxemberg’s narrative powers. While I wasn’t in the “can’t put it down” camp, I was consistently pulled along, interested at every turn to know what would happen next, and intrigued by the dilemmas Luxenberg confronted, including lack of access to essential hospital documents, the vagaries of memory among aging relatives, and as a journalist, knowing when to push and when to back off.

Luxenberg said something in that conference keynote that really caught my attention: “Changing social conditions create the environment for new taboos.” At the same time mental illness began to be destigmatized in the 1980s, people with AIDs were becoming the new lepers. Today  we are more accepting of gay marriage and families, but struggle with how to blend the transgendered into our families and institutions (see recent discussions of Wellesley).

But I see I am straying from my intention to review Annie’s Ghosts.

Luxenberg’s story follows his research, which takes him from California to Eastern Europe to interview family members and visit scenes of family history, plus repeated research trips to Detroit’s suburbs where the Eloise Hospital was located. Along the way, he ponders the ethics of revealing family secrets.

Quoting Luxenberg on the legal debate over access to personal medical information: “…How can we, as a society, overcome the shame long associated with the mentally ill if state laws mandate that history be kept in the shadows?” This is why I said “the dilemma faces more of us than you might think.” From my memoir writing workshops, I’ve become aware that just about all of us have a madman somewhere up the family tree. Whether we know it, how we find out, and what we do with the knowledge holds the potential for a story as riveting as Luxenberg’s.

In his  APH keynote, Luxenberg had this to say to historians about to let family skeletons out of their closets: “When keeping the secret does more harm than good, it is time to consider letting it free. In the beginning you control the secret. In the end, the secret controls you.”

 

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Sarah White and Erin Farrell Adamany talk travel writing with Carol Koby

I have been working with Erin Farrell Adamany on her memoir about a fascinating 5-week trip to Morocco with her mother and two children. We were recently interviewed on Carok Koby’s radio show, “All About Living.”

The program allowed me to talk about some of the writing tips I offer in my book, Write Your Travel Memoirs: 5 steps to transform your travel experiences into compelling essays. But more importantly, Carol’s interview allowed me to hear Erin talk about the experience of working with a memoir writing coach.

Erin read an excerpt from her memoir about her first morning in Marrakesh–and a thought-provoking encounter with a palm reader in Jamaa el Fna Square. You can listen to the 51-minute program here: Erin’s story starts at 32:30.

Erin Farrell Adamany with guide Mohammed and palm reader, Marrakesh, summer 2014

Erin Farrell Adamany with guide Mohamed and palm reader, Marrakesh, summer 2013

 

 

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Mother’s Circus

By Donna Biddle

When I went grade school in Terre Haute, Indiana in the 1940s, schools had more leeway as to when you went to school and what could be a reason to let school out early. I particularly remember one late April day when our grade school, Fairbanks, closed at noon so we could go to the circus.

It had come to town, pitched its tents and had only one show that afternoon.  Most of my classmates were going except those of us who couldn’t afford a ticket.  I walked home slowly, trying to get myself ready.  I didn’t want to show my mother my disappointment.  I felt connected to the circus since I had been born on circus day.  My mother told me I was born while the circus parade was going down Wabash Avenue.

No matter how hard I tried to be okay, I really wanted to go to the circus, but there wasn’t any money so I hadn’t even asked if we could go.  I had told my mother I didn’t even like circuses and I was glad I didn’t have to go.

I came home and as I walked in the door I could tell my mother was excited, but I didn’t know why.  She gave me my baloney sandwich and we sat at the kitchen table I stared down at my plate not wanting to look up for fear my mother would see my disappointment.  As soon as I finished my lunch my mother took me by the hand and lead me to the attic stairs.  I couldn’t imagine why we would go up there.  It wasn’t really an attic, but a large room.  We never used it because it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer.  It was scary to me because the family said a ghost named  Sadie lived up there.

Climbing up the stairs was an adventure in acrobatics.  We used the stairs as a pantry.  There was flour, bread, can goods and you had to step over, around and through all this to get to the top.  Half way up the stairs was a window with old curtains and a roll up blind.  The dark green blind kept out most of the light.  I held her hand tighter.

When we got to the top, mother turned on the light.  On a table was lemonade and orange circus peanuts, the sort of hard marshmallow kind.  “Donna, we’re at the circus”.  I looked around and saw the old rocker turned over and covered with a grey blanket.  “Be careful of that elephant”, my mother cautioned.  “He’s pretty friendly, but you can never tell about wild animals.”  On the clothes line was a clown we had cut off the back of a cereal box.  It’s arms, legs and head were tied with strings so they moved.  Mother sat me down on the old bed on the side wall and the circus began.  The elephant bellowed, the clown danced, my mother’s cherished carnival prize monkey on a string did tricks, the shoe box circus wagons covered in cellophane and tissue paper were parked to the side.  Squeaky, my cat, chased a string and fetched a paper wad as our tiger act.

We read Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With the Circus.  We drank lemonade and ate circus peanuts and talked about the circus.

I often wonder if the kids who went to the circus that day remember their circus as vividly as I remember mine.

Donna Biddle is an occasional writer who knows she has a memoir or novel to be told and hopes to finally write it.

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