“No man is a prophet in his own country.”
That line keeps running through my mind as I sit down to lunch with my sister who I haven’t seen in years. These days I’m the enlightened guy, but to her I’m just the spoiled kid who couldn’t make eye contact when wearing a bikini.
It’s the summer of 2001 and we’re having lunch in lower Manhattan. He read a preliminary copy of Damnedest and has had a few months to digest it. It was really nice of her to read it because it’s really not her kind of thing. She is a good citizen; a successful executive, wife, mother, Republican, crazy about tennis, Christian, and an all-round productive member of society. (She once told me that she was raising her children to be productive members of society and I was so shaken that I nearly knocked out a tooth.) She is a wonderful person, but she is not part of the demographic to whom the book is addressed.
There is a plate of cold pasta in front of me and a salad in front of her. We are both drinking iced tea. She’s in charge of the creative side of a medium-sized ad agency, and she’s certainly very good at it. She’s taking time out of her busy schedule to have lunch with me. After this, I go to the park to lie on the grass and watch people play with their dogs.
Visiting your sister and having lunch shouldn’t be a confusing ordeal, but it is. Is she really my sister? What does that mean? We share some stories and acquaintances, such as childhood and parents. Are my parents really my parents? Genetically they are related to my body, but the person who lived through my childhood is no longer there. The past that I share with this person is as real and important to me as if I had read about it in a brochure.
The problem is that these people, my family, are all related to my shell, and I am not. They are looking at the outer Jed McKenna and assuming an inner Jed McKenna. I’m inside Jed McKenna looking out and I can’t really remember what he’s supposed to do or say. It’s all a farce. I am an actor playing a role to which I feel no connection or motivation. There can be nothing genuine in my dealings with the people who are dealing with my outer garment. (Everything is further entangled by the fact that there is no “me” inhabiting my shell, just a fading echo, but let’s not go down that road now.)
Actually, it’s not really confusing. I have not the slightest doubt about who and what I am. The tricky thing is that who and what I am is not related to this pretty professional woman eating salads in front of me. By coming to this luncheon I have inserted myself into a situation to which I do not belong. I am an imposter. I have a residual fondness for my sister and if she were to die I would be saddened to think that she is no longer in the world, but the simple fact is that our previous relationship no longer exists.
Okay, so why am I telling you this?
Because that’s what I do. I try to bring this lighting thing up and it seems like an interesting aspect of the whole thing. How do you relate to the people who were most important to you before you woke up from the dream of the segregated self?
She asks why I’m in town.
“My astrologers told me it was a good time to step away and not try to achieve anything. They said ketu and rahu wouldn’t let me do anything for a while anyway…”
I look up to see that he has stopped chewing halfway through his mouthful and is looking at me in disbelief.
“You’re not serious. Do you have astrologers?”
Oh yeah. I guess that sounds weird. I was vaguely aware that she was trying to be funny by starting a sentence with “My astrologers told me…” but what’s kind of funny to me is otherworldly to her. She could have fun with that too.
“I have dozens of astrologers. I can’t swing a dead cat without punching someone doing my chart or explaining how my future will unfold, advising me on almost everything.”
His expression doesn’t change. “Do you have astrologers?”
“Lots. I have to beat them with a stick.”
“And they tell you… They tell you what the future holds? What should you do? When should you do it? What should you avoid? Is that what we’re talking about?”
He chews again, but the wide-eyed gaze remains. There is a chasm in this conversation through which there is no point in trying to communicate. She knows I like some serious weirdness, but she doesn’t know how much or what kind. I don’t really have astrologers, of course, but in those days it seemed like I was surrounded by Eastern and Western students of astrology who were always eager to share their readings.
“What do you do with all that information?”
“Me? Nothing. I mean, I’m not asking. It’s not like I’m waking up and summoning court astrologers to plan my day.”
“Sounds like you do.”
“I was speaking lightly.”
I’m trying to playfully skip along the surface of this conversation. I don’t want to sink into the kind of answer I would give to a serious student. The truth is that I do not possess any mechanism that allows me to be curious or concerned about the future, but saying that is not a happy conversation.
“Jesus,” she says, shaking her head. “My little brother has his own astrologers.”
“Well, they’re not really mine. They’re just present, so to speak.”
I am used to conversing with people who are not awake and are not happy about it. Everything else is chatter; talk just to talk, reinforcing the illusion of oneself. I’m not against it, I’m just not interested in participating. My fault.
“So you obviously have a lot of influence over your students,” he says as he takes a sip of his iced tea. I reflect on her statement and decide I don’t have an answer. I take another bite of pasta, wishing I had ordered something with meat.
“I mean,” she says, “they obviously hold you in very high regard. That’s a huge responsibility.”
She understandably thinks that she’s my older sister and that we have a meeting; a nice little catch up lunch. She’s been having trouble with this little brother/spiritmaster thing and is trying to handle it. Does she think I’m a fraud? Do you think I’m directing a game? Does she think that, deep down, I’m still really her little brother? I don’t know and I don’t really care. Just because she’s read Damnedest doesn’t mean she and I can talk; it means she should know we can’t. She doesn’t seem to be clear on that. Maybe she thinks that lighting is just my day job and that I can step out of that role to be with someone who knows the real me.
“I don’t know. I guess it’s a liability.”
“Don’t you know? Obviously these people are heavily influenced by you. Don’t you think it’s a big responsibility?”
I shrug. The first thing he told me when we met was that he wasn’t dressed well enough to go to the restaurant. Such a statement is so strange to me that I could only shrug. Now it seems like every statement he makes is so foreign to me that I can only shrug.
By agreeing to this lunch engagement, my hope was that I could return to my old persona long enough to host a civilized meal. That was too hopeful. I can no longer pose as myself and am simply unable to formulate a response to everything she has to say; I have forgotten my lines. We don’t share a common language and there’s no way I can make him see that. From her point of view, she’s saying perfectly normal conversational things.
“Yeah, I guess that’s a big responsibility,” I say, trying to say something that sounds like I’m saying something.
She lowers her voice. “You hear a lot about people in your position taking advantage of that responsibility for…unsavory purposes. I hope you never do something like that.”
I could simply tell you what the preliminary copy of the book was meant to tell you, that we are no longer related because what I am now is not related. But why say it? To satisfy me? I would not do it. To inform her? I would not do it.
“You mean sexual stuff? That sort of thing?”
“Whatever. Power corrupts. I just hope you’re careful.”
Sweet. The older sister gives the little brother some advice on how to shoulder the burden of power. Being in advertising, maybe she thinks we have something in common; exercising the power to influence people’s thoughts. Maybe she thinks we’re in the same business, I don’t know.
I put down my fork and sit down. “Well, when I walk around the house, I always have someone come up to me with a boombox playing the Darth Vader theme song to give my approach a heavy, ominous feel. And I certainly don’t dress like that. I have, You know, the robes, the beads, and I always wear fresh flowers. Just embellishments, all very boring, really, but the minions expect it. At first there was a bit of resistance to being called Shri Shri Shri Shri Jed, but I got it. “They got it. And remembering to speak first person plural there and singular here might take a little getting used to, but we’re, I mean, uh, I’m happy to make the effort. Noblesse oblige and all.”
She looks at me for a moment, then bursts out laughing. I guess some of the ice has broken because we can continue in a lighter and friendlier way, and eventually say a genuine fond farewell.
I doubt I’ll see her again, but I’m happy to know she’s still in the world.