My fortieth birthday was approaching like a tidal wave. 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, a color television. I tried to convince myself that this was due to the fact that 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 demented liturgy of symphonic discontent. I decided to learn to meditate, discovered a Vipassana Buddhist teacher in my neighborhood, and began to sit every morning on my purple zafu.
One afternoon, my friend Isabel called to tell me the Dalai Lama was coming to Santa Monica to give the Kalichakra Initiation. I’d met Isabel when she came backstage after one of my performances.
“That sex fantasy with the refrigerator was so divine,” she told me at one of her Pacific Heights dinner parties while butlers serving smoked salmon and caviar toasties on silver trays waded through a bubbling crowd of environmentalists, publishers, writers and philanthropists. Isabel had grown up in Argentina, where it was traditional among the wealthy to create an international milieu of royalty, intellectuals and artists. Her warm brown eyes exude confidence, her cheeks are aphrodisiac, and she wears a silver streak in her brown hair the way teenagers wear nose rings, to show that even though she’s holding forth on a white rug arrayed with priceless antiques, she’s really a rebel. Over champagne, Isabel and I discovered that we both were seekers. We began going to retreats, dharma talks, satsangs and darshans together.
“Do you want to go to Santa Monica with me and be my roommate?” Isabel asked over the phone.
The Kalichakra Initiation is one of the most esoteric and advanced practices in the Tibetan Buddhist system. During the initiation, participants take vows to devote their lives to altruism, to become bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who, instead of stepping off the wheel of incarnation upon their death, return to this earth 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 an escalated state of environmental devastation, the Dalai Lama had decided to offer this transmission to anyone who felt moved to participate. Many of my friends were heading for Southern California for this event. I accepted the invitation without a pause.
When I arrived at the Shangri-La, an upscale art deco hotel on Ocean Boulevard, Isabel 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.
“Isabel, what’s the very pure thought? I’m not sure I’m following this,” I asked, eager for an in-depth dharma discussion.
“It doesn’t matter. 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,” Isabel 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 crowded 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 wine-colored robes and scarlet chicken-comb headpieces chanted their multi-octave deep-throated drone, and the Dalai Lama recited detailed instructions in Tibetan.
“What page are we on?” I asked Isabel.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, waking up from a nap. “Breathe. Meditate.”
“But we’re supposed to be visualizing some 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 sinuous lines radiated from pay phones like Medusa’s hair. Men in denim and turtle T-shirts paced outside in the Santa Monica sunshine, their portaphones pressed against their ears.
“Did you get the address of 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, people rushed back into the art deco auditorium, resonating with deep-throated chants. Steeped in the summer heat, we planted ourselves in the plush seats and prayed to be truthful, kind, compassionate. Two thousand of us took vows together to dedicate our lives to the well-being of others.
On the way home, Isabel whispered in a conspiratorial hush that her friend, Carlos Castaneda, was coming to the hotel to join us for dinner.
“Don’t tell anyone; it’s just for us. He’s a bit finicky about who he hangs out with.”
We only had thirty minutes. Like college roommates getting ready 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 Isabel’s French perfume when we heard the knock. Isabel glided to the door with cultivated poise. Wide-eyed, I examined a short gray-haired man in a wrinkled polyester suit and dusty cowboy boots embracing her in the doorway.
“That cannot 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 steeped in shamanism and desert ravines. I had read all of Carlos Castaneda’s books when I was in college and they had affected me more than any other writer I had ever studied. Castaneda’s accounts of his encounters in Mexico with the Yaqui Indian sorcerer, don Juan Matus, had informed my entire generation. I would quote don Juan to my friends who would quote him back to me. “Follow a path with heart,” we would tell each other. “Keep death over your left shoulder.” We were taking psychedelics and changing the world into a place that prioritized human love above materialism and magic above science. Castaneda and don Juan were our guides through a terrain outside the law, one 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,” Isabel smiled with a seamless grace. “Nina, Carlos Castaneda.”
Like earth opened by a plow, Carlos’ furrowed face fell into a wide grin as he shook my hand. His hand 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 this man.
“I’ve been waiting to ask you for ages, what really happened to don Juan?” Isabel dove in. “Did he die?”
“No, no,” Carlos chuckled, “he didn’t die. He disappeared. He went to the other place. I am learning this too, to become immortal. This is my work now, which begins after dark. Most people think that their work is what they do at their jobs, during the day, but the real work happens after midnight.
“After don Juan left, la Gorda became my benefactor,” he went on, leaning forward, looking us both directly in the eyes as if fishing. “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. His eyes glowed with the victory of our capture.
“And anything la Gorda wanted me to do, I had to do it. So, one day, she told me to go to Tucson. She said 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’m not going to Tucson. I don’t know how to cook.’
“I got into my truck and I drove off. Six hours outside of Nayarit, I was thinking, ‘My life in Los Angeles isn’t that great.’ Twelve hours outside of Nayarit I was thinking, ‘My life in Los Angeles has its ups and downs.’ Eighteen hours outside of Nayarit I found myself on the border of Arizona, heading for Tucson, thinking, ‘My life in Los Angeles is completely miserable.’ I pulled up to the first greasy spoon cafe I laid my eyes on and I walked in. I asked for a job.”
Carlos crossed his arms over his chest and deepened his voice.
“‘Do you know eggs? 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 found a studio apartment and I practiced cooking eggs for two weeks—scrambled, over easy, over hard, soft boiled, hard boiled, omelets, poached. I went back to the cafe.
“‘Do you know eggs?’ the boss asked me again.
“‘Yeah, I know eggs,’ I said.
“So I got the job. After a month they promoted me, put me in charge of hiring and firing. And this young girl named Linda came in and wanted a job as a waitress. So I hired her. We got to be friends and she told me that she was a fan of Carlos Castaneda and she gave me a couple of Castaneda’s books to read. I didn’t know what to say. I took the books and a couple of days later I gave them back. I told her I didn’t really understand.”
Carlos chuckled, enjoying the story. I sat on the pastel hotel 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. The sympathetic critics suggested it was poetry, important fiction. The harsher critics accused him of fraud. I listened to Carlos’ story like a detective, looking for factual flaws. I examined his brown and wrinkled face for evidence of deception. But I couldn’t hold myself back, I fell into the story as if carried away by rushing water, seduced by Castaneda’s enthusiasm, his sunny chuckle, his intelligence, and the understated grace of his gestures.
“One morning Linda came into the cafe and she was very jumpy.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked. ‘¿Qué pasa?’”
Carlos sat up straight in his chair, pulled his knees tightly together, and spoke in a high pitch.
“‘He’s here. Carlos Castaneda. In the alley. There’s a tall dark Mexican man sitting in a white limousine with the air conditioning on and the windows rolled up and he’s scribbling notes on a yellow pad. I’m sure it’s him. There’s rumors that Carlos Castaneda is in Tucson. What should I do?’”
He relaxed his knees.
“I didn’t know what to say. I told her to just go out there and introduce herself. She thought she was too fat. And that Castaneda would never fall for a waitress at a greasy spoon cafe. I looked at her standing there in her cap and apron. She looked beautiful to me, radiant. She was young and lively and had a quick mind.
“‘You’re perfect, just the way you are,’ I told her.
“She put on lipstick and fixed up her hair and went out into the alley. Two minutes later, she came back with tears streaming down her face.
“‘What happened?’ I asked her. She could hardly talk through her tears.
“‘I knocked on his window…and he rolled it down…and I said…hi and told him my name…was Linda…he just rolled the window up…he wouldn’t even talk to me.’
“I felt real bad,” said Carlos, a sadness darkening his eyes. “I knew it wasn’t Castaneda, but I thought maybe she’d meet some guy who’d take her out to dinner. I didn’t know what to do. I took her in my arms and I held her.” He paused, looked out the window at the silhouettes of palm trees lining the street.
“I started to cry too, because I’d come to really love this girl. We’d been best friends for nearly a year. I wondered if I could tell her who I was. But I realized, she’d never believe me. She’d think I was making it up, to make her feel better. You see, for all this time she’d 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. I’m Linda, I realized, thinking what I long for is something other than this life unfolding moment to moment in ways I could never plan or even fantasize. Out of the window seagulls cried the sun down, colors marbled the sky. Hunger fell out of my bones.
Carlos paused and looked at me. We sat in the dim pink light of sunset. No one moved.
“When I got back to my studio apartment, La Gorda was sitting there, waiting for me. I don’t know how she got in. She always got in, always found me. I told her what had happened. I asked her what I should do.
“‘Vámanos,’ she said.
“‘But I can’t just leave,’ I told her. ‘I have to give two weeks notice, train a replacement, say goodbye to my friends.’
“‘What’s a matter,’ she said. ‘¿Tiénes miedo? You’re afraid no one can cook eggs as good as Carlos Castaneda? Vámanos.’
“We got into my truck and drove off.”
Carlos got up to go, shook out his pant legs, extended his arms. I walked right into his strong hug.
“You’re perfect, just the way you are,” he whispered into my ear.
I could hear him whistling as he strode down the hall.