It was 10 at night when I met the Hare Krishnas. It was raining, and I was in Washington Square with my then-girlfriend Livy, a talented artist and chronic worrier, when we were approached by a thin, monkish-looking man. He looked awfully frail and spoke with a lilting Boston drawl, like some kind of spiritualist Southie. Who knows, maybe New England is going through a spiritual resurgence; Puritans to Prabhupada. He was smiling, and the rest of his group, some feet away, dressed in ragged kurtas, barefoot, their quasi-topknots slicked down from the rain, were smiling too.
One of the men offered me a small drum, and I accepted. Livy prodded me in the shoulder, mouthing the words, “let’s leave, now,” but I just waved it off and told her to relax. I sat down, cross-legged, and the Bostoner started drumming, his head raised to the sky, chanting softly in a hushed voice. We played there, all of us, in the little drum circle in Washington Square. Some got really into it, shaking and rocking and singing mantras, while passersby, slightly fazed, kept a distance and took photos on their phones. I just tried to keep a steady beat.
Not to sound like some New Age loon, but there was a serious feeling there. It wasn’t one of the typical things you hear from those with religious experiences; I wasn’t really happy, and I didn’t feel whole or complete or less lonely or at one with God or anything. No, I was just content. I felt like I didn’t need anything else, like I could just live in that single moment forever and I’d be just fine with that. It was almost as if I’d been divorced from all emotion, but at the same time, I could see them, say hi, sit in the living room and eat hors-d'oeuvres and play Mahjong with them. The best way to describe it is this: normally, emotions are brandished fists, ready to knock your lights out, but there, in that moment, they felt like a welcome guest. And I liked it, being thrust into the present without any baggage of my own. By the time we finished, I was just about ready to get the Vedic tonsure myself, if Livy, who had been watching the whole exchange and felt bored, hadn’t pulled me away and back to my parents’ apartment.
When I was kid I ran away to the creek behind my house. It was a little wilderness, a minute district of the Hercynian, with small waterfalls and jagged rock outcrops, sunlight swimming through the canopy of leaves in one yellow sheet. I made camp atop a boulder, ate some strawberries from my lunchbox and drank a carton of chocolate milk. And then I sat there. For maybe an hour I sat there, alone, listening to the birdsong and water, the sunlight slowly drizzling through the leaves above me, the warm spring air gently tousling my hair like a doting mother. After that hour, I left for home; there are no power outlets in the forest, and I needed somewhere to plug in my nightlight.
I realized something about myself then: I can’t stay in one place. I need change. I didn’t know it then, but I need change for the same reason why I need faith, whether that faith is Jesus or Shiva or the NASDAQ or whatever: I’m aimless. For most people, that’s just a situational thing, like, “oh I lost my job, I don’t know what to with myself, blah blah blah.” For me, and I’m assuming many other people my age, it’s an integral, and unfortunate, part of our personalities.
Change is like an unwelcome visitor bringing a broken bike into your bedroom. It’s unneeded, unhelpful, and a little confusing. However, I need the bike. I don’t just accept it, or embrace it; I actively seek it out. The Hare Krishnas offered that - Bhakti’s bike, a tantric ten-speed; radical change. I didn’t care about enlightenment, I didn’t care about karma, I just wanted to be away from where I was.
We got back to the apartment. We saw my parents, Livy talked with them for a while, and I heard them laughing. I took a shower - a long one. I turned the water hot and sat on the floor of the bathtub, staring blank at the wall. You know that feeling, when you’re immediately out of serious danger? Like you just got out of a car crash, or narrowly avoided slipping into a crevasse? I felt that. Except, I wanted to go back into it. I wanted to climb into that crevasse. I wanted to stay there, to make my home in it.
Later that night I opened the window and climbed onto the fire escape. The paint on it was chipping away. It was wet from the rain. And then I sat. This time, longer than an hour. Cars drifted below me, their headlights a dizzying haze from above. The stars had called in sick and the sky was a murky black. I felt at peace, and, although briefly so, it felt special. But that’s only one kind of change. I never talked about the bad kind, the kind where you lose something important, where it takes you away from where you were and throws you into another crevasse - a small, dark, hopeless one.
I like to think I don’t have much experience with tragedy, or at least any tragedies of my own. No close family members have died, my family’s not starving, I’ve never broken any bones, etc. Still, everybody has something. I was hospitalized freshman year - nothing serious - and spent Thanksgiving in a psychiatric ward. My roommate was an awfully kind heroin addict, my caseworker was a former male model, it was all real surreal. When I got out, I had to cope with both my own issues, and everything I had learned from the people in the hospital, and that really does a number on you.
In, “The Things They Carried,” Timmy copes with Linda’s death through writing, in an attempt to resurrect her through the written word. I did the same. After my release from the hospital, I started writing music. It become an obsession - the following summer I made it a personal rule to write at least one song a day. I felt like I had no control without writing, like I was stagnant and dumb. Writing was an escape, for both me and Timmy. He could create a world where Linda lived; I could create one where I knew what I wanted. Writing was just another bend in the road of change, another turn in a twisting Autobahn of confusion.