Luck Disguised as Ordinary Life
My fortieth birthday was approaching like a tidal wave and I was single, childless, and questioning the value of being a performance artist with a cult following but no steady income. I was living without the requisite evidence of adulthood — a couch, a dining room table, a matched set of dishes. I tried to convince myself this was because I had separated from a relationship and nearly all of the furniture and electronic devices I had used for seven years belonged to my ex-lover. But I knew the real dilemma was that I’d dedicated my life to my work and I wasn’t getting famous fast enough. There were no book contracts, no movie deals, no television appearances coming my way. I needed help, a guidebook for the mid-life moonscape of defeat.
One of the great benefits of disappointment is that it drives you to religion. Usually not the one you were raised with, if that had worked you wouldn’t be in this condition. Exorcism was the only methodology to stave off the demons that had caught wind of my approaching birthday and flicked their icy tongues in my ear chanting a liturgy of discontent. I decided to learn to meditate, discovered a Buddhist teacher in my neighborhood, and began to sit every morning on my purple zafu.
One afternoon, my friend Martina called to tell me the Dalai Lama was coming to Santa Monica to offer the Kalachakra Initiation. I’d met Martina when she came backstage after one of my performances, a piece about a woman alone in her room.
“That sex fantasy with the refrigerator was divine,” she told me at one of her Pacific Heights dinner parties while butlers serving smoked salmon and caviar toasties from silver trays waded through an effervescent crowd of writers, painters, activists, and philanthropists. Martina had grown up in Argentina where it was traditional among the wealthy to surround themselves with a circle of international royalty, intellectuals, and artists. Her warm brown eyes exuded confidence, her cheeks were aphrodisiac, and she wore a silver streak in her dark brown hair. Over champagne, Martina and I discovered that we both were seekers and began going to retreats, dharma talks, satsangs, and darshans together.
“Do you want to go to Santa Monica with me and be my roommate?” Martina asked over the phone.
During the Kalachakra initiation, participants take vows to become boddhisattvas, enlightened beings who instead of stepping off the wheel of incarnation upon their death, return to this earth over and over again to serve all living beings. Normally, these teachings are only given to students with years of preliminary practices under their belts, but because the world was in such dire straits, the Dalai Lama had decided to offer the transmission to anyone who felt moved to participate. Many of my friends were heading for southern California for this event and I accepted Martina’s invitation without a pause.
When I arrived at the Shangri La, an upscale art deco hotel on Ocean Boulevard, Martina was spread out on the king-sized bed balancing Mothering magazine on her stomach, which rose like a whale from a calm ocean. She was expecting her fifth child after a twelve-year pause and she needed to get current on parenting. I lay down next to her and pulled out the forty-page text we’d been given for the five-day initiation process.
From this time until enlightenment
I will generate the altruistic intention to become enlightened,
Generate the very pure thought,
And abandon the conception of I and mine.
I wasn’t sure I was following. “Martina, what’s the very pure thought?” I asked, eager for an in-depth dharma discussion.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said yawning. “We’ll get it by osmosis. Do you think I should get a diaper service?”
“Definitely,” I said turning back to the incomprehensible text.
In the morning, we waited in lines that stretched around the block until it was our turn to take three mouthfuls of saffron-blessed water and spit out our mental and emotional toxins into an enormous white plastic bucket.
“I’m going to throw up,” Martina groaned, covering her eyes so she didn’t have to look at the frothy, urine-colored spittle.
We did three prostrations as we entered the hall, one for the buddha, one for the teaching, and one for the community of seekers. Searching for our places in the two-thousand seat auditorium, I tried not to stare at the celebrities. We settled into velvet seats, pulled out our books, and studied the stage where monks in one-armed burgundy robes and buttercup chicken-comb head pieces chanted a multi-octave, deep-throated drone and the Dalai Lama recited detailed instructions in Tibetan.
“What page are we on?” I asked Martina.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, waking up from a nap. “Breathe. Meditate.”
“But we’re supposed to be visualizing a deity with green arms and a flower on his forehead.”
“Relax,” she said as she closed her eyes, stretched out her legs, and leaned her head back on the top of her seat.
I couldn’t relax. This was my opportunity to receive an important transmission. I struggled to follow the text.
Within the great seal of clear light devoid of the elaborations of inherent existence,
In the center of an ocean of offering clouds of Samantabhadra
Like five-colored rainbows thoroughly bedecked...
At the break people dashed into the lobby where men in denim and Izod T-shirts, young women in mini-skirts and spiky hair, and androgynous thirty-somethings in Armanis paced outside in the Santa Monica sunshine, their cell phones pressed against their ears.
“Did you get the address to Richard Gere’s party for the Dalai Lama?”
“Has my agent called?”
“Cancel the 2:30, this is tedious but I think I’ll stick it out. Say I had an emergency or something.”
“He said he would sign? Fantastic. Maybe this stuff works.”
“I hear there are three parties tonight, and a tea somewhere. Isn’t Barbara Streisand involved? Find out.”
At the sound of the gong, everyone rushed back into the auditorium, resonating with deep-throated chants. Steeped in summer heat, we planted ourselves in the plush seats and prayed to be truthful, kind, and compassionate — two thousand of us taking vows to dedicate our lives to the well being of others.
On the way home, Martina informed me that her friend Carlos Castaneda, was coming to the hotel to join us for tea.
We only had thirty minutes to get ready. Like college roommates preparing for a double date, we took turns in the shower, hovered shoulder to shoulder in front of the bathroom mirror with our blow-dryers and lipstick, finessed each other’s outfits. Our wrists were still moist with Martina’s French perfume when we heard a knock and she glided across the room with cultivated poise and opened the door. A short, gray-haired man in a wrinkled polyester suit and dusty cowboy boots embraced her in the hallway.
That can’t possibly be him, I thought. I had imagined him tall, with broad shoulders and a swatch of thick dark hair, someone with an air of Mexican aristocracy flavored with shamanism and desert ravines. I had read all of Carlos Castaneda’s books when I was in college. Castaneda’s accounts of his encounters in Mexico with the Indian sorcerer don Juan had informed my entire generation. My friends and I would quote don Juan to each other. “Follow a path with heart.” “Keep death over your left shoulder.” We were taking psychedelics and trying to change the world into a place that prioritized love above materialism and magic above science. Castaneda was our guide through a terrain outside the law that our parents were too conservative and too terrified to explore. Castaneda was our surrogate father, don Juan our spiritual teacher, our prophet.
“Carlos, this is Nina,” Martina smiled with a seamless grace. “Nina, Carlos Castaneda.”
Carlos’ furrowed face fell into a wide grin as he shook my hand — his grip was as warm as a chicken’s nest. He sat down in a floral print easy chair and asked for a glass of water. I could hardly believe I was in the same room with him.
“I’ve been waiting to ask you for ages, what really happened to don Juan?” Martina dove in. “Did he die?”
“No,” Carlos chuckled, “He went to the other place. I am learning this, too, to become immortal. People waste their lives because they forget they are going to die. It is at night, in the dreams, that the real work goes on. When you learn how to die, you learn to live forever.”
“So tell me how you learned,” Martina said.
“After don Juan crossed over, La Gorda became my benefactor,” Carlos said, looking us both directly in the eyes with the gaze of a hunter. “She was fat and ugly with coal black hair and dark eyes. I was completely under her spell.”
I was completely under Castaneda’s spell now. The lilt of his voice, the Spanish accent cradling an impeccable English, hypnotized me and I saw that he recognized the moment of my surrender. His eyes glowed with the victory of our capture.
“And anything La Gorda wanted me to do, I had to do it. One day, she tells me to go to Tucson. She says I should work as a cook in a cafe.
“‘No,’ I said to her. ‘I like my life in Los Angeles. I like my friends. I don’t know how to cook.’
“So I got into my truck and drove off. Eighteen hours outside of Nayarit, I find myself on the border of Arizona, heading for Tucson. I pull up to the first greasy spoon cafe I lay my eyes on, I walk in and I ask for a job.”
Carlos crossed his arms over his puffed up chest and deepened his voice.
“‘Do you know eggs?” the boss says. “Ya see, hamburgers and fries are easy, but we serve breakfast all day and you’ve got to know eggs.’
He uncrossed his arms and let his voice soften.
“I find a studio apartment and I practice cooking eggs--scrambled, over easy, over hard, soft boiled, hard boiled, omelets, poached. I go back to the café, tell the boss I know eggs, and get the job.
“After a month they put me in charge of hiring and firing and I hire a young waitress named Linda. We get to be friends and she tells me that she’s a fan of Carlos Castaneda and she gives me a couple of Castaneda’s books to read. I take the books home and a couple of days later I give them back to her and I tell her I didn’t really understand them.”
Carlos chuckled, enjoying the story. I sat on the pastel couch with my legs pulled up and studied his face. The press had recently discredited Castaneda’s claims to have apprenticed to a witchdoctor in Mexico. Sympathetic critics suggested it was important fiction, harsher critics accused him of fraud. I listened to Carlos like a detective, looking for factual flaws. I examined his brown and wrinkled face, his eyes, for evidence of deception. But I couldn’t hold myself back, I fell into the story.
“One morning Linda comes into the cafe and she’s very jumpy.
“‘What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Qué passo?’
Carlos sat up straight in his chair, crossed his legs tightly together, and spoke in a high pitch, imitating Linda.
“‘He’s here. Carlos Castaneda. In the alley. There’s a tall dark Mexican man sitting in a white limousine with the windows rolled up. There are rumors that Carlos Castaneda is in Tucson. I’m sure it’s him. What should I do?’
“I don’t know what to say so I tell her to just go out there and introduce herself. She thinks she’s too fat, and that Castaneda would never fall for a waitress at a greasy spoon cafe. I look at her standing there in waitress outfit and to me, she looks beautiful.
“‘You’re perfect, just the way you are,’ I tell her. She puts on lipstick and fixes up her hair and goes out into the alley. Two minutes later, she comes back with tears streaming down her face.
“‘What happened?’ I ask her. She can hardly talk through her tears.
“‘I knocked on his window , and I said... hi, and told him my name... was Linda, and... he just rolled up the window.’
“I feel real bad,” said Carlos. “I knew it wasn’t Castaneda, but I thought maybe she’d meet some guy who’d take her out to dinner. I don’t know what to do so I take her in my arms and I hold her. And I start to cry too. You see, I’ve come to really love this girl. We’ve been friends for nearly a year. I think I should tell her who I am but I realize she would never believe me. She would think I’m making it up to make her feel better. For all this time she’s known me as Joe Gomez.”
Carlos Castaneda, the man she dreamed of meeting, was holding her in his arms. But she didn’t recognize him. Love slips by with an alias as the scarf-waving Sirens of disappointment captivate our imaginations. Sitting there across the room from Carlos, I realized that I was Linda, thinking what I longed for was something other than this life, unfolding moment to moment in ways I could never plan or even imagine. Out the window seagulls cried and colors marbled the evening sky.
Carlos paused and we sat quietly, bathed in the pink glow of sunset.
“When I got back to my studio apartment, La Gorda is sitting there, waiting for me,” he went on. “I didn’t know how she got in. She always found me. I tell her what happened and I ask her what I should do.
“‘Vamanos,” she says.
“‘But I can’t just leave,’ I tell her. ‘I have to give two weeks notice, train a replacement, say goodbye to my friends.’
“‘What’s a matter? ‘ she says. ‘Tiénes miedo? You’re afraid no one can cook eggs as good as Carlos Castaneda? Vamanos.’
And we get into my truck we drive off.”
Carlos got up to go, shook out his suit, opened his arms. I walked right into his strong hug.
“You’re perfect, just the way you are,” he whispered, leaning up to reach my ear.
And I believed him.
It was the final day of the Kalachakra initiation. Martina and I sat in our merlot velvet seats in the dark and sweltering Santa Monica auditorium. We tied red blindfolds over our eyes. We cast toothpicks into the air seven times. We visualized ourselves as the four-faced Kalachakra deity with twenty-four arms embracing his four-faced, eight-armed, saffron yellow consort. We licked sweet yogurt out of our right palm. We imagined red dots moving up our spines mingling with white dots moving down our spines. The monks in crimson robes and sunset orange headdresses chanted their polytonal drone, pounded drums, bonked gongs, crashed cymbals, and blasted seven-foot horns in a symphony of ancestral sound that vibrated our bones. We vowed to tell the truth, to be kind, to be generous, and to dedicate ourselves to the enlightenment of all beings.
Now my birth is fruitful.
My being alive is also fruitful.
On the way back to the hotel, Martina told me that Carlos was going to pay us another visit. We put out a plate of crackers and cheese, a bowl of fruit and as the sun was hovering on the horizon outside our windows, we heard his knock. Martina glided to the door. Carlos walked in wearing the same wrinkled suit I’d seen him in four days before. He placed his hands on Martina’s bulging belly.
“Holá chica,” he purred to her unborn child. “Tiènes una madre muy bonita, muy especial.” He closed his eyes and stood there for a moment, praying I guess. Then he turned to me and gave me a rugged hug. Martina propped herself against a mound of pillows on the bed, I sat on the couch, and Carlos took his seat in the easy chair. He was theatrical even when discussing smog.
“Tell me more about La Gorda,” Martina ventured, leaning back against the pillows.
Carlos paused for a moment searching our eyes, letting his gaze linger a second too long, the way you look at a potential lover.
“Another time I was getting ready to leave Nayarit,” he said, relaxing his perusal, “and La Gorda gave me instructions.”
Carlos leaned back in his chair, spread his knees apart, pushed his belly out and spoke in a high voice. I could see La Gorda, fat and dark.
“‘Carlos, go to... Escondido. Check into a motel room, the kind with olive green carpets stained with coffee and cigarette smoke smelling up the furniture.’
“‘How long do I have to stay there?’ I asked her.
“‘Until you die,’ she said with a smile.
“‘I’m not doing it,’ I told her. ‘I like my life in Los Angeles.’ And I got in my old truck and I drove off. Hours later, I found myself in Escondido, where I pulled into the first motel I could find. The room had an olive green carpet with coffee stains and cigarette burns, and reeked of stale cigarette smoke. I stayed in that room for weeks,” Carlos sighed. “Alone.”
“What did you do?” I asked him.
“Nothing,” Carlos said, “I did nothing.” He spoke slowly, with space between the words. “I studied the patterns of cigarette burns on the carpet. I stared at the ceiling. I watched motes of dust dance in the light that came through the sliding glass doors. I drank coffee. I ate now and then. Fear would come and I huddled under the bedcovers. Or sometimes the heat of anxiety made me sweat so much I threw the blankets to the floor. At times the terror was so strong, I curled up over the edge of the bed and pressed the corner of the mattress against my belly, my solar plexus, just trying to stay alive. I felt for sure I would die. Then one day, finally, I let go.”
He paused. I looked at him looking at me the way you lock eyes with a deer, settling in until one of you moves. “Suddenly, something shifted,” he said. “The fear lifted. And everything I’d ever cared about — the pain of childhood, the struggles of my career, fame, money, romance, the women who had left me, the ones I still wanted, the past, the future, the ‘does he like me, does she like me?’ How we waste our lives. It all fell away, in an instant. I was completely free. And I had never felt so happy in my entire life.”
Carlos laughed. “I called my friends in Los Angeles. ‘Divide my things,’ I told them, ‘I’m not coming back.’ They thought I was drunk. ‘I’m not drunk,’ I told them. ‘I’m perfectly sober. If you don’t take my things the landlady will.’ The next morning, I checked out of the motel. I got in my truck and drove off. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t care. I’d never been happier in my entire life.
“You see,” Carlos said, settling back again in his chair, “the difference between me and other people is that most people look at their lives as if they’re on a train and they’re sitting in the caboose. They watch the tracks sweep out behind them and they see that this has happened and that has happened, and they’re disappointed. But they adjust. And they know exactly what will happen next because of what’s happened before. They believe their future will be just like their past — the same disappointments, the same pleasures.
“But me, I look at my life as though I’m sitting in the locomotive of that train. Ahead of me, the landscape opens into the distance. I don’t know where I’m going and I have no idea what will happen next. No matter what went on yesterday, I know that today anything can happen. That’s what keeps me happy. That’s what keeps me alive.”
Carlos sparkled with energy and ease. His well-being was contagious. “Ambition, it’s the enemy of intuition,” he said, his voice calm and private like a lover’s. “You have to be silent and listen to the quiet callings of the heart. And know that anything can happen.”
Martina and Carlos and I were all smiling. I have to remember this story, I thought to myself. I have to remember.
“Es muy tarde por ustedes,” Carlos said standing up and stretching his legs. “Martina, you have to get some sleep. And me, I work at night, so I have to move along.”
“Right, immortality practice,” Martina said with a sly grin. “Look, do me a favor, don’t disappear from this plane before you visit me in San Francisco.” A flash of fear creased her broad forehead.
“Don’t worry,” Carlos reassured her, placing his hand again on her whale belly. “I want to meet this baby before she forgets where she came from.”
We walked him to the door. Carlos gave me a final hug, his thick arms strong around my back. He whistled as he walked down the hall. I longed to run after him and beg him to take me along. I wanted to enter the dream world and wend my way through the post-death realms with Carlos Castaneda as my guide. I wanted to learn how to die without dying.
“Martina, can’t we go with him?” I pleaded.
“Are you kidding? I’m exhausted,” she groaned, collapsing onto the bed and grabbing the phone. “Let’s order hot fudge sundaes, crawl under the covers, and watch David Letterman.”
That did sound like a good idea.
“Perfect plan,” I said, as a wave of ordinary-world glee took hold of me. As Martina dialed room service, I walked to the window and sighted Carlos moving at a brisk pace under the arcade of palm trees. No one stopped to stare, took his photo, asked him for his autograph. He was completely anonymous. I followed his progress down the sidewalk until he climbed into his old truck and drove off.