The Key Turned

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Part I

1.

It was around 9:30 on a breezy night in the early spring of 1978. I parked my taxicab outside my parents’ house in the St. Louis suburbs and went in the basement door to the “office” I maintained there. The old-linoleum-floored room and adjoining bathroom had been intended as a maid’s quarters when the house was built around 1920. As a boy, I’d used it at different times as a playroom, a pet sanctuary, a chemistry lab, and a darkroom.

I got right down to business with my guitar and reel-to-reel tape recorder. This particular night, a desperation I’d watched grow in my heart for a couple of weeks had become unbearable, and I knew I had to take action. It was actually my second try at this. A bare repetition of the first attempt, however, would not be sufficient. Two months before, in the deepest cold of winter, I’d had to recognize, during another evening plying my cabbie rounds, that I had “personal feelings” for Eleanor, the pen pal and phone companion who’d gradually, over the past year, become my best friend.

You know how it is: at a certain point, you have to ask the question and accept the answer. I’d bravely dialed her number that night, and instead of bandying about with some anecdote from my day to make her laugh, had gone straight into stammering out my admission of feelings with the best words my heart and mind could put together. Her answer had been a quick, dismissive “No.” As she’d realized what I was saying, her voice had morphed from its usual friendly enthusiasm into a kind of dull, bored monotone. The initial “No” had said it all, but then she added, “I could never be with a man again. God is my only lover for the rest of this life.”

Strangely, as she spoke those words, her voice betrayed her New York origins for the first time since I’d known her. With that voice, she was something of a turn-off, too, as a part of myself not involved in the drama wryly observed.

I’d had no plans to try and batter down her defenses. It had seemed pointless, since she’d been so adamant. I went back to my taxi job with a clear mind and a capacity to be present. Now that I’d “gotten that out of my system,” I would simply see what else life had to offer.

2.

In a few weeks our active friendship, which had understandably lapsed after my call, resumed. You know how that is, too, perhaps: Eleanor and I had gotten used to one another.

We’d met at the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, two years earlier. The Center is named for Meher Baba, an Indian spiritual master, born in 1894, who remained silent for the last 44 years of his life. His name means “Merciful Father” and his devotees, myself included, believe him to have been the world messenger or Avatar of our age—as Buddha, Jesus, and Krishna each were of theirs.

After a while Eleanor and I, for different reasons, had both moved back to where our families lived. By then, though, we’d become important to one another, and kept in touch regularly. We had similar family backgrounds and a unique personal connection. Now, we’d discovered our relationship could be submerged by events like my recent confession without being permanently sunk. I was glad.

We resumed our letters and phone calls. In another couple of weeks, however, I noticed voices inside me once again singing hymns to her as I drove through the St. Louis metro area on my night missions in my Checker-taxi “Rosinante.”

And so, on this second night—”On a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings,” in the words of St. John of the Cross, my favorite poet at the time—I resolved to do something more than make a mere phone call. Not knowing what that might be, I asked Meher Baba inwardly. Right away, I felt an intuitive answer. Thinking they might come in handy, I’d leaned the guitar against a wall and placed my small reel-to-reel, the best thing back then for saving spoken or sung material, on the table. I knew lots of sublime songs. A few “I” had written. Others I’d collected. Inspiration was so accessible during this period that I felt whatever else was needed would surely offer itself to be created on the spot. The thrill of brailing the outlines of a pattern as yet partly unknown began to quicken my spirit.

I recorded several devotional songs of my own composition, then added a beautiful, little-known Afro-American spiritual entitled “Long, Long Journey,” along with Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Man Come Into Egypt,” and the old Shaker hymn, “Wondrous Love.” I also incorporated a song each by Bob Brown, Jim Meyer and Ward Parks, three inspired songwriters devoted to Meher Baba. Their songs manifested the presence of the Master, who had finished his work and “dropped his body” in early 1969, yet could be felt, many asserted, even more powerfully now than when he had walked the earth.

I went on to create and record a simple but melodic version of “Dark Night of the Soul,” the short poem to which the author, St. John of the Cross, had devoted a whole book of explication. The poem had become a theme of those years. Baba had referred to the world as “this darkness which you think is light,” and our path to God seemed to be a veiled one, taking place in the midst of everyday life. I wasn’t sure exactly what all of this meant. Certain events, however, seemed to partake of the mystery.

Once, for example, I’d been helping my friend Sister Ann of the Holy Order of MANS in the tiny garden plot that a St. Louis Public Library branch let her use. She’d somehow misplaced the gate key, but suddenly, I almost stepped on it. It was as though its location had been revealed to me, buried in some grass. Sister Ann thanked God—whom I called Baba and this dear lady knew as Jesus—for my assistance. I felt a divine beauty and mystery in our collaboration.

3.

Two hours after entering my sanctum, I held what I thought was the finished cassette tape in my hand. It contained more than half an hour of inspired, mystically-based music. But as I addressed a padded envelope to my beloved and prepared to insert the tape, I felt something was missing. Immediately, I realized what that was. There was no “personal” element to let Eleanor know how I felt about her!

Man playing guitar - The Key Turned fiction

Once more, I looked and asked within. Spring was just beginning to transform the world, and you could feel it in the night air, but a seemingly perpetual spring had been in bloom in my life for some time. This was all the more miraculous because it had arisen out of such a deep, dark winter. Baba had described the advent of the Avatar every 700 to 1400 years as the “springtide of Creation,” and I felt fortunate to be alive. There seemed no limit to what was possible, so I was surprised, but not that surprised, when almost immediately a new song wafted up and began singing itself inside me. I grabbed my guitar, inserted the tape back into the recorder, and turned it on to record. Starting with an F chord, I began singing the chorus:

Do you know, my friend,
do you know?
Do you know how much I love you,
do you know?

The song reminded me of ballads by the popular Gordon Lightfoot. The chorus was perfect. I turned off the recorder, wrote down several verses that came to mind, and then turned the machine back on. As I sang the last verse into the mic:

My love is like an ocean,
and wants to flow to you,
and when it does
I’ll ride there on its waves…

Meher Baba - The Key Turned fiction

Suddenly I “saw,” swirling and spreading within me, a brilliant, shimmering rainbow of light like an aurora borealis. I felt, with complete conviction, that “the key had been turned.” Meher Baba had occasionally used that phrase, explaining that in most cases he did his spiritual work through ordinary means. Once in a while, though, he said, he had to “turn the key.” An Australian disciple charged with purveying Baba’s message in his country had complained after years of effort that he’d done his best, but there had been almost no results. Baba had gestured, “Do not worry, I will turn the key,” and, in fact, literally made a gesture of doing so. Following that, the Australian’s situation had changed dramatically.

Satisfied after recording the completed song, I packaged up the tape, stamped it, and dropped it in the mailbox across the street from my parents’ house. Then I went back out to my taxi and finished up the night’s driving.

4.

Very soon after that night, a curious and totally unexpected chain of events began to unfold in my life. I had anticipated going on with my taxi driving indefinitely. My stated goal was to raise enough money to make a pilgrimage to Baba’s tomb-shrine in India, since he had expressed a wish that each devotee make the journey at least once in his or her lifetime. It was easy to see, however, that as much as I enjoyed ferrying passengers safely through the St. Louis night, I was only earning enough money to pay my expenses and have a little spending money on the side. I’d never get to India that way.

Around a week after my nighttime musical session and song-epiphany, my overnight taxi shift ended, as usual, at 10 a.m. I left my cab at the garage for my two days off, and drove my own car straight to a nearby park to unwind. As I sat, relaxing under a tree, a sudden thought came through my head as if placed there by someone: “If you get a job on a Mississippi River boat, you’ll be in India in a month.”

The statement was true, I realized. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I’d lived a month on a towboat pushing barges several summers earlier during college, and had earned $1750. With room and board provided, I’d saved nearly all of it. Round-trip tickets to India were around $850.

I drove straight to the National Maritime Union and renewed my membership. I sat down in one of the rows of chairs, opened a book, and waited for my name to be called. Nothing happened the first day, but on the second morning, I received posting to a boat docked at Alton, Illinois, just a few miles to the north. My parents drove me up there, and I became a sailor again.

5.

A deckhand works six hours on and six hours off, 24/7. The work can be very demanding. It involves ratcheting barges together by inserting a bar into the handle of a metal device and pumping like hell. This tightens the thick cables that connect two barges. Fifteen or so barges, as you might imagine, have to be very tightly wired in order to ply a river without being pulled apart.

When a tow comes through a port, it might drop off one or two of its barges and add a new one. Occasionally, the deckhands have to undo the whole tow and make up another one within a day or so. In a place like New Orleans, where the sun often burns pitilessly overhead, working two such shifts in a day is grueling.

The part of the work I liked best was holding the end of a rope—a potentially lethal job, for I’d heard stories of men being snapped in half when one broke—at the end of the tow as we’d drift into a canal lock at 3 a.m., the river unbelievably beautiful and silent in the mist. As we’d enter the lock, I’d throw the end of the rope to a man on land. He would then secure our boat and its barges to the shore until the water level had been raised or lowered enough for us to proceed.

One day, a couple of weeks into my month on the boat, we had our first mail call. My foreman handed me a thick envelope with my parents’ return address scratched on it in my father’s scraggly handwriting. Inside was another envelope with my beloved’s name and return address. My fingers trembled as I raced to open it.

Just as I’d known would happen, Eleanor declared herself mine. “I will follow you anywhere,” she wrote, in keeping with her rather dramatic nature. She added, “You are my master!” Deconstructed, this latter statement was not as radical as it sounds. I took it to mean that she saw the Master in me. In the East, marriage partners are taught to regard the spouse as an embodiment of God.

I walked out on deck and looked at the Mississippi. The river was quite clean and clear this far north in Iowa. I daydreamed of what the next few weeks would bring: flying to rendezvous with her in Miami Beach, our wedding, and finally, a triumphant trip to India—our honeymoon!

St. Paul, Minnesota - The Key Turned fiction

A few days later, the towboat had engine trouble in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we went into dry dock. The city rose in front of us, a golden sun reflecting off her glass skyscrapers. During my six hours off the next morning, I took a walk into town and phoned Eleanor from a booth in the Radisson Hotel. We swore our love to one another for five minutes, and talked about our plans.

As I hung up, though, the triumph in my heart was almost instantly replaced by a cold realization that I needed to confide to her certain things I hadn’t yet shared. Mostly, they had to do with an emotional trauma I’d had at around age seven, and its effects. I had not heard the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but, as I realize now, had personified it. Many of the dragons I’d had to slay in life up to that point had been related to it. My sexuality and capacity for relationships had been affected both by the trauma itself and by the 20 years of enforced secrecy that had followed. There’d simply been no one in my life whom I’d felt I could talk to about all this, until just a couple of years before.

From the Radisson, I walked a few blocks to an old trolley-car diner I found near the river. For some unknown reason, nearly everyone there looked as if he or she had been a photographic subject for Diane Arbus. The food was good, though. After breakfast I ordered more coffee, pulled out a notebook from my shoulder bag, and wrote out what I needed to share with Eleanor. From the diner, I trekked directly to the downtown post office and stamped and mailed my latest missive.

The next morning, the boat’s engine was ready to go. We spent the morning assembling a tow to take back downriver, and departed in mid-afternoon. Throughout the next week, as I worked and rested, I nursed some mild anxiety about my beloved’s reply.

It came on the next mail call. We were back in Alton, Illinois, on our way to deposit some of our barges along the Ohio River, a hundred miles or so south. This time, it was a one-sentence telegram: “I will walk through the fires of hell with you.”

6.

The boat turned down the Ohio and then turned around again somewhere past Louisville. At Paducah, Kentucky, not too far from the river’s confluence with the Mississippi, my month’s stint was up. I got off the boat, had lunch, and caught a Greyhound back to St. Louis. The bus got me in late at night, but mid-morning, I went upstairs at my folks’ house and called Eleanor. The afternoon light gracefully filtered through the blinds on my parents’ bed, on which I sat for our lovers’ conversation and planning session.

After the call, I began phoning airlines. There was no reason to stay in St. Louis for more than a day or two, now that my life would only move forward by going to be with her. Mother and Dad were a bit nonplussed by the speed of events, but they were happy that my life seemed to be filling with good things, after all I’d been through in my twenties. They drove me to the airport the next night.

The Eastern Airlines flight was one of those “pinch yourself to make sure it’s real” intervals. Then, there she was, waiting at the gate, her curves showing under a black turtleneck and white pants, smiling at me with such love that all I could do was pick her up in my arms. After my bag came around on the carousel, she led me to her car in the parking garage, and we drove out into the decidedly tropical Florida night. We crossed the causeway to Miami Beach and turned down Collins Avenue to South Beach, the old part of town that was not yet trendy the way it is today. We pulled into the lot adjoining the Ocean Sun, the seniors’ home her parents owned, where she both worked and had an apartment.

After our bodies had said what they needed to say to one another, we put on swimsuits and went across Ocean Drive to the beach. It was around 10 p.m., and tame little whitecaps were breaking under the fluttering coconut palms. It seemed God was giving me everything my heart desired. Here I was, with a beautiful companion who loved me, on a tropical beach. I’d been in love with the tropics since my childhood, making Mom drive me around St. Louis looking for papayas, mangoes and coconuts, which in those days were hard to find.

During the next few days, Eleanor took me to visit her haunts and meet her friends. Her parents welcomed me. She’d told her dad I was a writer, and he was, too, it turned out. He’d written a novel and asked me if I’d read it and make suggestions. Her mom reminded me of my own mother—two ladies raised in the East Coast Jewish culture of the same era.

A week later, our friend Irwin officiated at our wedding at Miami Beach City Hall, with most of the local Baba community in attendance. After the ceremony, we walked between parallel lines of rice-and-confetti-throwing friends. I got in the driver’s seat of Eleanor’s car to take us up the coast to New York City, where we’d catch our flight to India. My new wife, sitting in the passenger seat, asked me to look at her. As I did, she tied a colourful bandanna around my head. When she had it just right, I turned the ignition key and we were off.

7.

We almost didn’t make it to India. A good deal more than 1,000 miles lay between us and our flight. As we drove, the energy of being together was so intense that Eleanor began to say we were “living the New Life,” emulating a special phase of Meher Baba’s life between 1949 and 1951, during which he wandered about India with a small group of companions.

Perhaps, indeed, God was with us enough where we were, I began to feel. The subtext of this was that, as newlyweds, we were “cleansing one another” emotionally. In addition to lovemaking, this took the form of stopping the car occasionally to, as we began to call it, “practice dying.” This had to do with consciously turning to face deep, even threatening emotions that were being stirred up by our intimacy, and remaining vulnerable as we discussed them. Sometimes, in a secluded place, we would enact a spontaneous psychodrama. I was usually the one being worked on in our relationship, with the dramatic material emerging from my “charged” subconscious. Some scenes simulated violent encounters that may or may not have actually occurred in past lives.

All I know is that the force pulling up buried emotions was almost overwhelming. I found that I carried a lot of hostility towards women, which had apparently been bottled up for quite a while. A lot had happened in my childhood that, as I’ve written, I could not speak of until recently. After that, it sometimes felt as if the lid had been taken off a great, boiling cauldron.

Large rocks by water - The Key Turned fiction

One example of the kind of surprises surfacing during this period took place even before our road trip. One evening we were sitting together on some boulders that, together, made a kind of sea wall sloping down to Biscayne Bay. All of a sudden, for no reason I’m aware of, I became “possessed” by feelings of self-hate rising from deep inside. The feelings were so powerful and so “other” that they seemed to grab my body and propel it towards the water with great force. I believe the only reason I didn’t drown was the steadying effect of Eleanor, sitting nearby. Her presence gave me the forbearance to stop just shy of the plunge. Between that night and this, nothing remotely similar has ever happened. Though aspects of what happened during my time with Eleanor remain mysterious to me even today, my sense is that I’ve felt permanently lighter, emotionally, since our time together.

8.

We had a reprieve from such intensity when we reached Myrtle Beach. As a married couple, we were permitted to share a cabin at the Meher Spiritual Center. Before retiring there for the night, we rendezvoused with and received congratulations from many friends.

Back on the road, though, the energy level intensified even further. By the time we reached central North Carolina, we both realized that we were in way beyond our understanding. We agreed that we needed to stop wandering and make an immediate beeline for our flight.

At the Kennedy airport, a thin Indian man in the waiting room, whom I’d never before set eyes on, abruptly walked up to me and said, “The soul is a butterfly that is meant to land on flowers and draw nectar. But you are a butterfly who has been landing on shit!”

His words filled me with dread. Were all Indians psychic? Was what we had been doing evil? I felt like a bag full of “stuff” from my entire life and probably from many past lives. Eleanor and I had only been trying to follow intuition, or so I’d believed. Baba had said in his Discourses, “Ultimate Reality…can be known fully only by bringing the unconscious into consciousness.” I’d thought the two of us might end up as “new age healers” who could help others go through what we’d been through ourselves. Had I been deluding myself? Had we just been indulging ourselves, playing with the unconscious and its contents?

I was no longer sure of anything at all.

Part Two

1.

We disembarked from our plane, collected our bags, and emerged out into the moist air and beggar-thronged area outside the Bombay airport. Eleanor, who’d been to India twice before, hustled us into a waiting rickshaw that drove us downtown. After a restaurant snack in the hopelessly exotic and New-York-crowded centre of the city, we found a taxi, larger than a rickshaw, and Eleanor bargained with the driver about the price, while I gawked at my surroundings. Before long, we were off in one of the ubiquitous black Ambassador cars, our belongings stashed in the trunk. For hours we negotiated the vast city with its numerous moss-covered high-rise residences and dozens of large and small commercial centres. Finally, we emerged onto the main road to Poona or Pune, as the highway signs said even then, before the anglicized spelling was officially dropped.

Dog on road - The Key Turned fiction

Pune is the city of Meher Baba’s birth. We were to be hosted there by Baba’s brother Jal before going on to Meherabad, where Baba’s tomb is located, some 50 miles further on. Today there is a Mumbai-Pune expressway. While travelling along it you might sometimes swear, given the presence of such things as a neon golden arch rising high into the night sky, that you were on an American interstate. Back then, however, the only road was a one-lane, sometimes-unpaved thoroughfare leading straight through numerous villages. Dogs would be sleeping in its centre and know instinctively just when to get up and walk a hair’s breadth or so shy of a speeding car.

Between villages, the road wound through fields and jungle. The Western Ghats had appeared in the distance, and before long we would be climbing them. But as I peered out the window, and Eleanor wrote in her journal, we both suddenly realized that our taxi was slowing down, and in fact was about to stop, in the middle of one of the more remote jungle stretches.

“Why did we stop?” I asked the driver.

“Engine trouble.”

Now we were stuck in a remote part of a country I’d been in for all of four hours.

“What are you going to do?” asked no-nonsense Eleanor. “We can’t wait for long; we have someone expecting us. Can you call another car?”

Our driver did the sideways head-wag Indians do and disappeared into the jungle, leaving us alone. I retrieved our bags from the trunk and piled them in front of us, in order to be ready to get in a new taxi. Promptly, it started to drizzle. That didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Everything we had was secure inside a waterproof bag of some kind, or in the case of my guitar, in its vinyl case. A stringed instrument called a bulbul that Eleanor had brought was in a latched wooden box. My wife had followed the driver down the footpath to find out where he had gone, seeming completely comfortable in India and unafraid of dacoits, snakes, or anyone or anything else that might be lurking.

Awaiting her return, I lounged on my duffle bag, finding it rather comfortable, and let the fine drops of rain fall on my face. I had gone into a pleasant daydream when I heard a rustling in the brush. As I opened my eyes, a loud, irritated voice said, “What are you doing?”

It was Eleanor. It seemed obvious what I was doing, but I said, anyway, “Just relaxing.”

“You left my bulbul out here in the rain?” she asked in disbelief.

“Nothing’s really getting wet,” I said. “These aren’t even really drops; they’re like pinheads of rain.” As I uttered those words, it appeared as if knives came flying at me from her eyes.

“You start picking up everything and putting it back in the car, right now!” she demanded.

I was dumbfounded. Where was my beloved? I didn’t know this belligerent person! I stood up and began lifting our bags, careful to secure the bulbul first. In a couple of minutes everything was back in the trunk, but right then, we heard an engine. Another car, bearing a second driver, along with our first one in the passenger seat, entered the clearing and stopped.

“He will take you,” said the first driver, referring to the second. I reopened the trunk and transferred everything to the new car. We settled up with the first driver, although I had no idea how he’d contacted this new fellow. I imagined there was a village or something down the path, but as Eleanor hadn’t reported on her little trek, that thought was only conjecture. We folded our hands to the first driver, who was apparently going to wait for a tow, and got into the new taxi.

“We’re going to Pune, did he tell you?” Eleanor asked.

“Yes, yes,” replied the driver with a head-waggle, as we bounced along.

Eleanor turned to me. I hoped that the newly unpleasant atmosphere would somehow go away, but her look seemed to indicate that my wish would not come true.

Do you like wet bulbuls or dry bulbuls?” she asked.

“What?”

“I said, do you like wet bulbuls or dry bulbuls,” Eleanor repeated.

I sighed, realizing that she was making me recite a catechism.

“Dry ones,” I said compliantly.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” I promised her as we came into the next village. The car kept moving; the next dog got up from its sleeping spot in the road; and soon we were past this one, too. We began climbing the ghats, both of us quiet. I don’t know what Eleanor was thinking, but I was contemplating my shock. How ironic it seemed that just as we were nearing the place of all places that was our destination, our honeymoon’s bucket of sweetness had sprung its first leak!

2.

Eleanor had told the driver that our hotel was near the Pune train station. She’d made our arrangements, and I was all but unaware of the specifics. Pune was a mid-sized city in those days, although, since then, it has more than quadrupled in population. Turning at the station, the driver wove his way to the National Hotel, a small green building surrounded by lush gardens.

The bagwallas got our bags as we paid the driver and then walked up several steps to the lobby. The hotel had a peaceful, secluded look. In a tall bookcase with glass doors were several books about the Bahá’í religion, which was apparently the faith of the owner. We signed the ledger and followed the two bellboys outside and along the corridor lined by bamboo railings that led to our room.

The room was spacious and radiated simple charm. The beds were of the Indian charpoi variety, with sleeping platforms of knotted rope similar to the one in Meher Baba’s room inside the house built for him at the Myrtle Beach Center. There was also a fireplace.

It was only when we were securely ensconced there that I began to realize how utterly exhausted I was. We had been traveling for more than 24 hours. Eleanor and I showered and put on clean clothes, and immediately afterward, we heard a knock at the door. As I turned, I saw the big end of a black, folded umbrella sticking through the door, which we’d left partway open. A moment later a small, stocky man dressed in white, with a black, Eastern-style cap on his head, entered the room and said in a loud voice, “Ah, Eleanor!” My wife was already on her way over to greet him.

“Jal!” she exclaimed, giving him the most loving embrace. They proceeded to talk, and I, sitting on the raised table that was my bed, felt my exhaustion more acutely than ever. Suddenly, it was a major task to keep my eyes open and make sure I didn’t fall to the floor. My awareness was starting to dim when, a moment later, I heard Jal shout, “Ah, and you must be Martin!”

He was smiling widely and advancing toward me. “Ah!” he said jauntily. “Martin! I see Baba’s Love shining in your eyes!” I forced myself to stand and embrace the Avatar’s brother, even as I wondered, how can he see anything besides exhaustion?

“Martin,” Jal went on. “Welcome to India! Back in America, you were like a little frog climbing the walls of the Well of Illusion, and now you have come to India and you have jumpedhe made the word truly leap—”out of the well!”

“Really?” I asked. Could it be that simple? My gosh, I thought. What if it really is?

“I am so happy to meet you, Martin!” Jal said. I remembered the aerogramme letter that I’d received from him after completing arrangements for the trip. “Dear Loving Brother Martin,” it had begun, “I was so happy to hear you are coming to India and will be able to enjoy Beloved Baba’s love and bliss eternally.” I’d felt this letter to be, in spirit, like the loving epistles of John or Peter in the New Testament. Reading it had been another of those “pinch myself” moments in which I’d realized that somehow, in all my fumbling, I’d become connected with great beings.

Jal said, ‘Now, Eleanor, you come here, as well.” As she approached, he continued. “Get a good night’s sleep, both of you, and be ready for breakfast at 8 a.m. I will meet you at the hotel restaurant, and then we’ll go and see some of Baba’s places here in Pune. Let us embrace once more.” We each embraced him, and this messenger of joy went back out into the Indian night, while Eleanor and I got ready for a well-deserved night of sleep.

3.

For the next week, we were children under the care of a loving uncle. Jal met us every morning at the National Hotel restaurant where, by the way, the British-style breakfasts were delicious. He regaled us with stories of his brother, the Avatar; told us jokes; embarked on shaggy dog tales which often seemed to be about “a miser,” and had me wondering obliquely whether he might be talking about us; and listened to any personal problems we might be having. Another couple, the Johnsons, were in our company as well. The five of us did almost everything together.

The first day, we went to the home where Baba and his siblings had grown up, and where Jal currently lived. Eleanor and I sat together in the room where, after his Divinity was unveiled by the kiss of an ancient Muslim woman named Hazrat Babajan in 1913, and until he began his work as a fully-realized Master some years later, he would sometimes sit and bang his head against the wall to try to contain his Oceanic consciousness. You could still see the blood spots here and there. Being in the room was a powerful experience. It felt like a birthing ground for a new age.

Jal took us to the tomb of Babajan; to a museum commemorating the site of Guruprasad, Baba’s summer home that had been torn down in 1971; to a cave Baba had frequented, also during the period after Babajan’s kiss; and to the Pune zoo, where an elephant named Sumitra would trumpet every time she heard Baba’s name.

He also took us on more recreational, “touristy” outings to shops and restaurants. Once, when we were at a little clothing shop, in which I had no interest in the bargains my companions were avidly poring over, I noticed Jal sneaking off, about to go out the door. When he saw me looking, he motioned for me to follow. We crossed the street and sat down at a table at an outdoor chai shop. Jal said to the waiter, “Two chai.” When the cups of tea arrived, he looked at me intently and very pointedly said, “Drink slow.”

Two cups of chai tea - The Key Turned fictionThe similarities between the curious situation I was in and the stories I’d read in books, about Enlightenment being imparted through a cup of tea, teased my imagination. I drank slowly as instructed, and waited for something to happen. But in a moment or two Jal simply said, “Now let us go back to the others,” and that ended my fantasy.

Across the street in the shop, one of those little ones with the pull-up aluminum front doors that leave the establishment open to the air, my companions still appeared to be going through clothing and seemed not to have noticed our absence. I took up my former place near the front of the store and waited for them to finish. In a moment, I noticed Jal standing on the opposite side of the shop, also near the front, leaning on his umbrella. He turned his head in my direction and, enunciating very clearly, asked me, “Who are you?”

This was the question Meher Baba had said is the only real question—that the soul “tests and discards innumerable false answers” before, after innumerable reincarnations, arriving at the only real answer, which is “I am God.”

We were back in the God-realization scenario. Ah, so that’s it, I reasoned: you have to say it before you can feel it. And with all due solemnity, I turned to Jal and solemnly pronounced, “I am God.”

Immediately he made a face, as though he’d eaten a lemon. Then he proceeded to tell me, in no uncertain terms, “Don’t say you are God! Don’t say you are a Master, don’t say you are a Saint! Do not say anything about yourself. Forget yourself, and just say, BABA is Master. BABA is God.'”

I listened solemnly, feeling astonished at the elaborate means Baba’s brother had gone to in order to convey this lesson. Not that I had really been prone to saying such things, but it seemed that now I would be protected against them for the rest of my life!

4.

One evening Jal took us out to dinner at a very fancy restaurant called Dreamland. The tuxedoed waiters were like artists. The dinner of covered-dish items was served like a symphony. The food was delicious, and the second any of us finished our portion of any item, a waiter was immediately at the person’s side, silently and politely offering another helping from a huge silver platter.

I marveled at the sumptuous feast as I made my way through two whole plates of delectable repast, but was suddenly struck by a realization: wait a minute, I thought to myself. This place is called Dreamland! Did you come to India for more dreams? No, you came to awaken!

The next time the waiter came by with his huge platter of additional helpings, I simply put my hand up, smiled, and said, “No, thank you.” He instantly departed for another table. No one was forcing Illusion on me, I could see. It was simply up to me to say no.

5.

Eleanor and I took a bus to Ahmednagar and spent several days at Baba’s abode there. I thrilled to bow down at his tomb-shrine, or samadhi, for the first time. There were not many visitors then, so we had ample time to sit inside the structure, as well as to hear Baba’s close disciples Eruch and Mani speak in Mandali Hall about their days with Baba, and to meet Baba’s beloved, Mehera J. Irani, whom he said was the purest soul in the universe.

Whereas today the Meher Pilgrim Retreat, located within a picturesque quarter-mile walk of the samadhi, caters lovingly to the simple needs of pilgrims, while managing, at the same time, to be reminiscent of a palace, most visitors before 1980 stayed in hotels in town and commuted the nine miles to and from Meherabad each day. We put up at the Sablok, which was the closest thing—but not very close—to a hotel catering to Westerners. I found it an adventure. Besides, we were newlyweds, and any place where I could be with my beloved was paradise to me.

6.

Back in Pune, though, new spats began to break out between Eleanor and me. Jal had once described me as “like a little child.” In character with that description, I brought our difficulties straight to “Uncle,” instead of pretending that everything was okay.

Broken rope - The Key Turned fiction

The first time I did so was at the hotel. Jal pulled a rope and scissors from his pocket and asked me to cut the rope in two. When I did, he crumpled the two pieces together in his hands. A moment later, he asked me to take the rope from him and straighten it out. It was intact once more! “Just a trick,” I suppose, but it really did re-harmonize us for a while.

The next time Jal gave us instead a three-word suggestion, which he delivered melodically: “Talk in song.” Again, his prescription worked! Singing to one another our practical questions, our “sweet nothings,” and even our disagreements, we became magically “in tune” with one another for the rest of the day and most of the next!

However, we didn’t feel able to sing to each other forever, and another row erupted before long. A couple of days before our departure, as the five of us prepared to enter a restaurant for afternoon tea, Jal whispered to me, “Be brave.” I sat at our table wondering what would happen to give me an opportunity to demonstrate my courage. I did not have long to wait. As we passed the English-style teakettle around and added cream and sugar, and put jam or butter on our biscuits, he began to speak, and we all dispensed with our busyness and gave him our full attention.

“Now, Martin and Eleanor,” Jal said. “Your marriage took place back in the States, and it was the marriage of Illusion. Now that you have come here to India and jumped out of the Well of Illusion, it’s time for you to dissolve that marriage and instead be Best Friends. And when you return to America, continue to be just that—Best Friends!”

In a second, my heart sank through its floorboards. What about all that had happened? What about the key being turned? Anything else I could handle, but Jal’s suggestion undermined all that had materialized to indicate to me that I was on the right path in life. My beautiful wife—the very fact that we were together legitimized my life in my own eyes!

Everyone was looking at me, and I needed to respond. All I could do was lift my big cup of tea and mimic Jal’s words in a very loud voice: “Best Friends!” I began clinking cups with everyone, turning the gathering into a mad hatter’s tea party. The others seemed happy to clink and laugh with me, but inside, I knew this clowning was merely a form of denial. I had used it to opt out of really feeling the sobering truth, as I was completely unable to let it into my heart.

7.

Two days later we said our goodbyes to Jal and to the Johnsons, who were staying on in India. We took the train, the Deccan Queen, back to Mumbai. Eleanor agreed to keep trying in our marriage—to see if we could be “best friends” who were also husband and wife.

I remember literally nothing from our flight back to America, nor from our drive back to Miami Beach. However, I recall a brief vignette that occurred when we got back to Eleanor’s car in the outdoor area of long-term parking at the Kennedy airport. Before getting in, we both turned around to look one last time at the sweep of sky just turning to dusk, and at the terminals and runways. We found ourselves facing the main hangar of the airline that had just deposited us back in America. The Japan Airlines building was topped by an enormous, red-lettered neon sign that seemed to be winking at us. It said JAL.

8.

In Miami Beach, we resumed our lives—or rather, Eleanor did. I didn’t have a routine to resume there, having only arrived a couple of weeks before our departure for India. While Eleanor worked during the days at the Ocean Sun, I tried to live the life of a writer. I felt raw inside, like a newborn infant, due to the transformative experiences of the past couple of months. I didn’t see how I could survive in any kind of workplace.

Sometimes our companionship with one another was relaxed and easy. Other times it was intense, but in what seemed a beautiful way. One day on a lunch visit to chic Collins Avenue, the sidewalks were so crowded that the two of us got separated. This, of course, was long before cell phones existed. I felt my separateness from and union with my beloved like separateness from and union with God. When we were back together in love, it seemed as if God was whole! His proximity felt so immanent that it seemed as though we were having a “higher-plane” experience.

But under the surface, things were not that simple. I had told Eleanor once, in our early days, “I need all your love.” This had seemed innocent and true at the time, and she had assented, although that was before time and events revealed to us what such a promise really entailed. Though I’d felt justified in making the demand, I’ve since come to realize how infantile it was.

I became extremely jealous of Calvin, a handsome Cuban fellow who worked at the Ocean Sun. Through Eleanor, he’d become interested in Baba. The two of them had been good friends before I’d arrived. I have no reason to believe their relationship was anything but platonic, but I was simply helpless to assuage my feelings of jealousy.

Woman and two children - The Key Turned fiction

Naturally, my wife was not pleased by this, but the real breaking point between the two of us arrived one Sunday afternoon when we went to the beach. Two little children started playing with Eleanor. I could not help feeling jealous of them, too! Still believing myself entitled to “all her love,” I asked my wife to stop playing with them. Inside I felt like a dark, smoldering, smoking mass. My pathetic attempt to control my wife’s behaviour with the children was the last straw. A few days later, Eleanor informed me that I had to leave.

9.

Eleanor was kind enough to let me stay on the living room sofa until I actually left town. I had decided to go to Key West. She and I both believed that although I had “walked 10,000 miles in my moccasins,” as she’d put it, since we’d been together, I still wasn’t really comfortable with life and people, and needed more “seasoning.” For several years, Eleanor herself had lived out a lot of her wild oats in a resort town in the Southwest, before she had come to the point where she could say to me—before the key had been turned, of course—”God is my only lover for the rest of my life.”

Out of the blue one day, while I was still camped out on her sofa, she and I were talking and I mentioned San Francisco, in connection with a year I’d spent there in the early ’70s. The two words instantaneously “took me there.” I didn’t see San Francisco, but I heard and felt what I knew was the mighty energy of the city, all hundreds or thousands or millions of mega-whatevers, as if I had been swallowed by the vast dynamo of its subtle and mental spheres.

10.

I changed my plans and soon departed on a three-day bus journey along the southern route. I did not consciously feel devastated about leaving Eleanor. By this time, I had accepted what I could not change.

I half-watched out the window as green Florida went by, looking less and less tropical as we travelled north. The changing terrain accompanied a slide show in my mind: the “mystical” process of our coming together, the cataclysmic emotional work we’d done, our pilgrimage to India. We’d been through so much, in just a few months. It had been kind of a whirlwind.

And yet, now it appeared that Meher Baba, whom I had to believe was guiding things, wanted me somewhere else. “Someone” had even given me an internal experience to tell me where that was.

Getting out of the bus for a quick dinner in Mobile, Alabama, I had to trust that in spite of appearances, my life, with its seeming lack of coherence, was going the way it needed to go. What did “I” as a conscious ego know about when something was over? During his life, Baba had often ended major projects just as his disciples believed they were really getting going. In the spiritual life, something was “over” when the internal work was done. End of story.

I continued to contemplate the trajectory of my life, alternating this with reading, napping, and more gazing, as endless Texas went by. My upbringing had not prepared me for the discontinuities of my recent situation, so I had to stake everything on Baba. The “mystical experiences” I’d been given were no doubt vouchsafed to instill a depth of conviction within me that would endure through times like this.

I did not know if I was capable of obeying Baba as his closest disciples did. I might even have taken a wrong turn somewhere, or many wrong turns, without knowing it. Whatever the case, I knew no other way forward than to “take Baba’s name,” as He suggested, and keep plowing ahead.

At my first fateful “meeting” with the Master, everything in the room and beyond had “filled with Baba” and I had experienced that in reality, God alone exists. Since then, not even my own existence as Martin had seemed so incontrovertible.

We turned north after crossing the California desert. In a few hours, a new chapter of my life would begin. I had nothing but a duffel bag, a guitar, and my awareness. I would step off the bus with faith, still fresh from having laid my head upon the tomb of the current Avatar, which Baba had called “the powerhouse of the universe,” and having spent two weeks with that Avatar’s younger brother, who’d assured me time and again that the world is just a dream.

We would see what kind of dream was waiting.

Max Reif is also the author of a recently published book of poems, Journey from here to HERE, which can be ordered online. To view more of Max’s writing, plus his artwork, visit his website.

image 1: Retro book and key via Shutterstock; image 2: playing acoustic guitar via Shutterstock; image 3: Max Reif; image 4: Downtown of St. Paul via Shutterstock; image 5: View from the Rock Jetty via Shutterstock; image 6: dog sleeping on roadside via paul prescott / Shutterstock.com; image 7: Manu’s Menu; image 8: Rope is almost absent via Shutterstock; image 9: Two little children via Shutterstock

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Originally published at The Mindful Word.