This much was crystal clear when I was ten years old: yoga and homeopathy were magical. My mom was very sick, her regular doctors couldn’t help, but yoga and homeopathy cured her. It was magic.
A very welcome surprise
I think there’s a special kind of fear you grow up with when your mom is sick. I was the fourth of five children, and for most of my early life, my mom struggled with fragile health. Some of it was hormonal (mom had undiagnosed thyroid disease, plus, a few years after my younger sister was born, my mom’s endometriosis grew so excruciating that she had a total hysterectomy); some of it was immunological and musculoskeletal (Mom was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-30s); some of it was pre-existing (a severe burn incident, followed by coma, at the age of two had damaged her liver and kidneys); and some of it was neurochemical (Mom had untreated depression).
Mom was wonderful: deeply artistic, musical, well-read, witty, intellectual, beautiful (Mom was a model in her teens), and loving. But she was also fragile, in a lot of pain that her doctors couldn’t shift, and often despairing … whiny, even. I remember a lot of fun times with her, but I also remember being let down because she didn’t have the stamina she needed to take care of so many demanding kids.
I also felt singled out (though I wasn’t); I remember her dramatically ending school clothes-shopping trips (which I loved because they made the coming school year seem bearable) because there “wasn’t enough oxygen” inside the department store. I remember sharp feelings of disappointment and anger because I didn’t have a mom I could rely on. I also remember my own depression and shame at being angry with someone who was ill.
For my older brothers and sister, the emotions were even more complex than mine. The three of them were called the “first litter,” three years apart, boy, girl, boy — geniuses all. The athlete and musician, the artist and dancer, the math prodigy who loved dinosaurs. They grew up with a healthy version of my mom, and a family life filled with camping and swimming, sports and dancing, parties and fun.
I was born five years after the first litter, and my younger sister just sixteen months after me. Bam, bam. The second litter. And basically, the stress of our births knocked my mom into multiple illnesses. My older sister (at 9) became our caretaker, my brothers (12 and 6) watched over us too. Everyone focused on the needs of the new babies and their sick mother, while the first litter silently mourned the loss of their mom — and the life they once had.
I only learned the older kids’ version of the story a few years ago, because everyone in the family worked hard to give us a happy life, filled with art, music, learning, and fun. We sang together, laughed together, went camping … I thought our lives were pretty great, except when Mom was sick.
So in 1971, when Mom took a yoga class and started to get well, hope arose in all of us. Suddenly, Mom was able to walk, she wasn’t in pain, she was energized, and she had hope. And it wasn’t just yoga; she changed her diet and began studying Eastern philosophy. And she kept getting better, and happier, and more hopeful. She also became a vegetarian (which was very avant-garde at the time), and so did we. We began going to health food stores in search of unusual things like whole grain cookies, cod-liver oil, and bean sprouts.
A new life
Our lives changed very rapidly, especially after Mom became a yoga teacher herself and entered more fully into spirituality and alternative medicine.
We learned to meditate, we studied spiritual teachings from all over the world, and before the year was out, we had joined a spiritual group that formed around the teachings of a “channeled” entity (channeling is a process wherein the spirit of a dead person purportedly speaks through a living person, or a “medium”). This particular medium channeled an ancient Chinese spirit who had been a student of the philosopher Lao Tzu.
I won’t name that medium or anyone else involved in the group, because everyone has moved on, and everyone deserves privacy. However, for the sake of this story, let’s call the medium Purcell, and let’s call the Chinese spirit Kan Li.
Now, as suddenly full-fledged members of the spiritual in-crowd, life became polarized for us – between the bad conventional or Western world (which had totally failed my mom) and the far superior alternative or Eastern world (which healed her).
We switched from conventional doctors to homeopaths (and eventually to acupuncturists), we stopped taking all conventional drugs (even aspirin), and we began a decades-long fascination with fasting, alternative diets, alternative medicine, magical healing foods, and mega-doses of herbs and vitamins.
Okay, some of us did. Our family fell apart over this massive change (though my parents’ marriage was deeply troubled before that). My dad wasn’t having any of the yoga, the vegetarianism, or the spiritualism. Mom and Dad no longer shared basic interests, so their already floundering marriage came to an end.
Now my mom came to be seen as the spiritual and somewhat irrational parent while my dad took the position of the agnostic and stable-conventional one. My brother the prodigy (he’s now a mathematics professor) moved out with my father, while the remaining four of us kids went along in our own individual ways with my mother’s interest in alternative medicine, the natural foods revolution, and alternative spirituality.
It was both a sad and a magical time. Purcell and Kan Li taught me about reincarnation, channeling, and spirit guides. I had a new group of friends who remembered their past lives (with Akhenaton, in Camelot, etc.) and swore that I had been there, too. I started remembering my own past lives (I was never anyone important, but my memories were very vivid [ahem, Atlantis]).
Though I had lost my family life and my dad, I gained a happy and energized mom, a spiritual community, a group of wise, friendly spirit guides (Kan Li told us that everyone has at least one dedicated spirit guide; I had a crowd), and whole lifetimes of spiritual history that helped me tolerate the pain of losing our family life.
I had evolved to a new way of seeing the universe. I could see the energetic reality behind the mundane world; I understood the laws of karma; I knew how to use the power of affirmations to get everything I needed; I had direct experience of the soul and the spirit world; I saw through the illusion of death; and I understood the true source of healing and disease. I was a wise old soul with vivid memories reaching back to the dawn of humanity. I was eleven years old.
And now for something completely different
During those days of magic and upheaval, my elder sister (then 19) traveled to England to work as an au pair, and came back after a year-long stay. Mom and Dad hadn’t divorced yet, but she came home to a family that was falling apart. None of that mattered to us, because were were just glad to have her back. She had brought a suitcase full of bits and pieces of British pop culture — unusual makeup and clothing, strange foods, and most importantly, a Monty Python album (Monty Python’s Previous Record, released in the UK in 1972).
Monty Python had not yet crossed the Atlantic, so our family was one of the first in the states to hear these bizarre, gut-wrenchingly funny men and their skit humor. If my parents had previewed the album, they probably wouldn’t have approved of it, but luckily, we were able to listen to the irreverent Pythons as many times as we liked. By the time my parents heard the album, my brothers and sisters and I had learned the skits by heart — and we ran around acting out the parts of lovesick princes with bad skin, addled vicars, heroic lupine-wielding Robin Hoods, and batty women with grating falsettos.
This wild comedic influence, coming so close on the heels of our family’s entry into spirituality and metaphysics, has always been linked in my mind. It was a completely lucky occurrence, but I firmly believe that the Python’s pomposity busting, authority flouting, sacred cow-hoisting humor helped me place the more bizarre aspects of spirituality and metaphysics into proper perspective.
The Python influence, I believe, inoculated me against many of the more outrageous ideas — of which there are countless examples (drinking your urine as a health tonic; breatharianism, where you purportedly learn to live on air alone; and psychic cloud busting, to name but a few).
I directly witnessed many of those outrageous ideas because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and went to high school in Marin County (the epicenter of the New Age explosion of the seventies and eighties) — where I was surrounded at all times by unique and downright weird people and experiences. Though I was completely steeped in metaphysical teachings, I think that I was able to steer clear of dangerously unfounded New Age ideas because of the Python influence.
The magic fades
The Pythons were important touchstones for me, because after that first flush of health, Mom’s fragility returned within about two years. Now, however, she had endless curatives at hand; she took huge amounts of vitamins, special teas, special massages, special exercises, and special foods. She fasted regularly, and once did a 21-day raw beet juice fast on the channeled health advice of Kan Li.
Mom had phenomenal discipline; she was letter-perfect in her adherence to all of these health regimens. If perfect living and perfect dedication were prerequisites for health, Mom would have been the healthiest person in the world. But she wasn’t.
Luckily, our belief system gave her and the people around us the perfect answer as to why Mom was so sickly; it was a karmic situation that was providing her with valuable learning experiences. If she could learn to be even more perfect and spiritually advanced, she could heal herself and her bad karma, and as her final reward, she could stop reincarnating and finally ascend to become a spirit guide herself. Her illness was like a spiritual university course; if she could pass all the grueling tests, she could finally graduate.
Mom learned to see her body as a vehicle on this earthly plane, but also as a prison. The idea that she was being punished really made sense to her, and her go-to story was that she had wielded too much power and too much arrogance in past lives, which was why her present body was so limited and limiting. She was being taught an important lesson in humility.
Humility was a major organizing principle for Mom in the years after the divorce. She had chosen not to receive alimony (on ethical grounds; she didn’t agree that women should be paid for having a failed marriage), and with a 25-year career as housewife and mother, she didn’t have many career options. She always found interesting, artistic jobs, but she struggled to raise us (just my little sister and me; the first litter went out on their own after the divorce).
By the time I was fifteen, Mom had become a licensed massage therapist, and even with her iffy health, she was able to make a small and comfortable living. She was a local fount of wisdom about spiritual matters, health, nutrition, and healing, and she found her place in the world.
But she was hard to live with. The time she spent in intensive health regimens, the poor results she got from them, and the spiritual ideas about her karma increased her underlying depression. She soldiered through her pain and debility, but when she got very low, she would wonder aloud about how much more work she’d have to do before her spirit guides would let her leave her body (Purcell and Kan Li taught us that people didn’t die until they had completed all of their karmic work — but that suicide would doom you to a whole new series of incarnations due to the bad karma you created by killing yourself).
My sister and I learned to sneak quietly into the house after school, because if Mom was feeling unwell, she’d be camped out on the divan in the front room, unable to move without pain. If she heard us come in, she’d pelt us with a litany of requests for special teas, fistfuls of vitamins, and attention. And sometimes, she’d talk about death in the way you or I might talk about a vacation.
We did what we could, but we were frightened, angry, overwhelmed, and exhausted by her illnesses. We did what kids do: we coped, we managed, and we blew off steam by making fun of her. I did a scathing impression of Mom lolling about in the front room like some Pythonian Queen of Sheba, calling for tea and absurd amounts of vitamins. I can do it today and make my sister laugh, though we both know how totally wrong it is. Still…
Home life wasn’t easy, and though I was in a good alternative learning program in my high school, I was bored out of my mind and ready to leave home. I asked for, and was given permission to take the California High School Proficiency Exam. I had to wait to leave school until I was 16 (I left on the morning of my birthday), but then I was free. My elder sister had recently married a race car driver (really!), and they invited me to come on tour with them as their pit crew.
This isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Our family car was a VW bug, and you couldn’t drive one of those unless you knew how to fix it. My brother-in-law drove Formula Super Vee race cars, and they have VW engines. I knew something about VW engines, so I spent the Summer and Fall of 1977 on the Super Vee racing circuit in the U.S. and Canada. My real life had begun!
Next post: 3. Building a magical life