Emotional Counterpoint: A School Year Like None Other

During the 1963-64 school year, I was a 9th grader at Ogontz Junior High School in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The rollercoaster events that were to take place during that year would prove to be momentous for me and for others of my generation. The first, the assassination of a president, was to take place on a chilly day in November; the second, a mere two and a half months later.

On November 22, a Friday, I was in Home Economics (a course for girls only, where we learned to sew, cook, and otherwise run a home in preparation for what was then expected to be the work of all of us once we reached a suitable age: that of wife, mother, and homemaker), my last class of the day. Feeling bored and restless, I got permission to visit the bathroom along with my friend Carol. As we washed our hands and fooled around with our hair, Carol and I chatted about our weekend plans. Checking the clock, we saw that class would let out in less than an hour, and we smiled at each other. Only 45 minutes to freedom!

Returning to the classroom, we found it strangely altered. The lesson had come to an abrupt halt. Girls sat sobbing, their heads in their hands. Others were shouting, ” It can’t be!” or “I don’t believe it!” or were sitting trancelike in stunned silence, their faces pale. Even our teacher had tears in her eyes. Carol and I looked around us, at a total loss. “What’s wrong?” we shouted, suddenly afraid. Then we learned the terrible news: President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. Having missed the announcement that had come while we had been in the bathroom, we’d been granted a few precious moments of extended innocence.

After classes let out, I walked home in the chill, my thoughts as dark as the black clouds roiling in the sky and blocking out the sun, asking myself over and over, How could President Kennedy, so vital and handsome, be dead? How could something like this happen here, in America?

The gloomy weather on that November day seemed fitting for the death of a president, matching the mood of a nation. A few days later I sat glued to my TV, watching President Kennedy’s funeral along with my family and millions of others. November 25 was a sunny day, but the spare late autumn sunlight that spilled over Jackie in her black, over the rest of the Kennedys in their somber dress, and over John-John, his tiny figure saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin, did nothing to melt the icy sorrow in my heart. The haunting drumbeat that accompanied the president’s casket and funeral procession, the rhythm of which I can recall perfectly to this day, bore witness to the light that had gone out. The world had become a darker place. For me and for so many others of my generation, the shots that rang out on that dark November day stole away our innocence, and things would never be the same.

On February 9, 1964, a mere 77 days after President Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were the perfect antidote to the gloom that had settled over everyone in the aftermath of the president’s death—and I was the perfect age to appreciate them. My family always watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights, and February 9 was no exception. There we sat, my father, mother, my brother David and I, in front of the little black-and-white screen down in our basement. I can’t remember if we knew they would be on or not, but there they were, mop-haired and adorable. I sat there, my young teenaged self just drinking them in. 73 million Americans watched the Beatles make their debut, and it was the beginning of a love affair for many of them as it was for me. At the time, no one would have guessed that the appearance of the Beatles would end up having such a large impact, one that, while hardly reaching the traumatic impact of the assassination of a young and vital president, would nevertheless exert a powerful influence upon a generation.

The second time the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, the following Sunday, I started screaming as they sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” seriously shocking my parents. They knew me to be a studious and quiet and somewhat shy young girl who got top grades in school and never got in trouble—and here I was, ranting and raving like all the girls in the audience! Right then and there, I became a Beatles freak, and life was never the same. The lads influenced my life in countless ways, even, I suspect, contributing more than a little bit to my decision to become a yogic nun. After all, my interest in Eastern religion and meditation had been sparked by the appearance of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the summer of 1967, and by the trip to India to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that the lads later embarked on.

Two events, so different, and yet each so momentous. Two events on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, a kind of cosmic counterpoint. Two events of a rollercoaster school year that would shape an entire generation. And, as we say, the rest is history.

Returning Nuns and Soldiers: More in Common Than You’d Think!

At a recent book club meeting where my book, The Orange Robe, was the topic of discussion, one of the participants mentioned she thought the uniform I once wore was similar to those worn in the military—not that the two uniforms looked similar in any way (picture a soldier in flowing orange robes and an orange veil – now there’s an image!)—but that they served a similar purpose, giving the wearer a strong sense of identity and belonging. Her point was well taken, reminding me that I had often contemplated the surprising similarities between two roles seemingly on opposite ends of a spectrum—that of a spiritual teacher who teaches meditation and dispenses spiritual wisdom and that of a member of the military who often has to seek out and kill “the enemy.” In particular, the struggles both experience after leaving these roles can be remarkably similar.

For one thing, the returning nun or soldier experiences the loss of a ready-made identity, symbolized by that uniform. Suddenly, you’re back in the everyday world, wearing “civvies”—civilian dress. Now you look just like everyone else. Now you’re no longer special. You’re just an everyday person expected to do everyday things.

Closely related to the loss of the feeling of being special is the loss of a sense of mission. A strong sense of mission is vitally important to both roles. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as Ananda Marga nuns and monks went about teaching meditation and starting schools and other such projects, many were convinced that the organization was going to change the world. What a heady sense of mission we felt in those early days! Even for those of us who hadn’t believed in the “save the world” thing, there was still the sense of a spiritual mission, of turning people on to the spiritual life and giving them a way of achieving enlightenment. Members of the military have a similarly strong sense of mission and feel called to serve their country. Even if some harbor doubts about the mission they are given (it’s hard to imagine that none doubted the idea that the Iraqis were going to embrace us as saviors and harbingers of democracy once Saddam Hussein was gone), they must bury such reservations deep down in order to get the job done—and to survive.

This strong sense of mission is closely linked to identifying with the group as a family. Ananda Marga was mine for close to twenty years, and leaving that family, however dysfunctional it was and however necessary it was to leave it, proved traumatic. It can be even more so for the soldier who returns to civilian life. The men and women with whom and for whom the serviceman risked his life will forever have a special place in his heart. Some returning military members feel that their real families—their spouses, children, and other relatives—cannot understand what they have been through. The book Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel, focuses on struggles returning service members face. In its recent review of the book, The New York Times Book Review put it this way: “Home . . . is a world dominated by an elemental loneliness. Removed from the bonds of their unit—severed from the love of comrades that Finkel calls “the truth of war”—each soldier navigates the postwar on his own: “It is such a lonely life, this life afterward.” “ (Wow! What a perfect description of what I felt upon leaving my Ananda Marga family and returning home!) Indeed, faced with this feeling of loneliness, some soldiers end up re-enlisting precisely to return to the comrades who understand them, and who have become more like family than their own flesh and blood.

And then there’s the sense of being at a loss value-wise after returning. Many of those who leave their families and countries to become Ananda Marga teachers do so when they are young, some barely out of their teens. More than a few are confused and seeking direction, and in Ananda Marga, they find conduct rules and a ready-made value system that provide it. So it was for me. I was 24 when I left home for training in India. When I left the organization 18 years later, it was as if I were an adolescent leaving home for the first time. Having accepted without question a belief system and having followed a strict set of rules for all those years, I was faced with figuring out what my own values and beliefs truly were. Similarly, the majority of those who join the military also do so at a very young age and find that the military gives them a strong value system along with its disciplined lifestyle and code of behavior. Leaving all that behind can result in the same difficulty—that of sorting out what ones values and beliefs are separate from the group—that leaving Ananda Marga caused me.

These are just a few of the points in common. Of course, there are some differences. For one, most of us in Ananda Marga never had to risk our lives (though I almost got shot for meditating in the no-man’s land between Greek and Turkish Cyprus way back when, and some didis and dadas (nuns and monks) did end up dead for one reason or another), while many in the military risk theirs on an almost daily basis. And while a sizable number of those returning from the military have grievous physical wounds as well as psychological ones to deal with, those of us returning from groups like Ananda Marga only have the psychological kind. Still, the remarkable similarities do deserve a closer and more detailed investigation, perhaps as a book. I have my own life as an Ananda Marga teacher to tap for material, and I know some other ex-nuns and monks who would be willing to be interviewed. Anyone know some ex-servicemen or women who would be as well? If so, please contact me!