Our parents were looking for an end-run around human suffering.

We left our worldly home on a foggy early morning, low clouds that smelled like seawater.

“Zendo-by-the-Sea,” said our dad, Ray, trying to catch my sister and me in the rearview mirror. As if the zendo were another one of the turquoise-trimmed motels we stayed in along the way to get there.

There were plenty of rumors about Ivanovich—the Guru, to use an Indian word that worldly neighbors found sheer babble. That He’d skinned a live cat to harvest a psychedelic found only in the shallow feline lymphatic. That He’d been seen in a skullcap like a Jew and in the floppy diaper of a renunciate.

He steered with one tall knee. One long arm around Cleary, our mother.

It was early spring, there was no coastal traffic, but we took a whole week driving down from Halifax. Maybe our parents sensed they would lose their station wagon to the Guru. Tithe was the new language. The Guru consumed everything.

We stayed in seaside fleabags with vending machine breakfasts. One night there was a small traveling circus in our motel. A fellow with too-bright eyes and dyed feathers glued to his jacket was gauging the tires of an emblazoned trailer. “Could the kids see the bear?” Ray always fell for magic.

The showman burst into tears right where Ray confronted him. Just as quickly he seizured into laughter.

Later, on the highway, Ray jerked his bear-colored eyebrows up and down in the rearview mirror. The bear was a dancing beast with chain sores and a trembling lower lip, although the real suffering was endured, he assured us, by the owner who fed it dog food.

My sister and I would not have laughed if we had seen a dancing bear. We would have asked Ray for money to give the showman.

By the time we arrived, the Sanctuary was closed to lay-disciples. “We can’t glom onto Him,” our guide, Kai, informed us.

We heard she had changed her name from Kelly. Ray said there was something Virgin Mary about her. Something All The World Shall Be Taxed. Although she was too skinny to be pregnant. Kelly, Kai, also known as the First Beautiful Wife of the Guru.

In a preceding life, the Sanctuary had been just another old farm, Kai told us. The Guru had received it in tear-down condition, as He received everything, a hillock of shingles between the bay and the blue woods, rocks on the shore gray as gunmetal.

There were plenty of rumors about Ivanovich—the Guru, to use an Indian word that worldly neighbors found sheer babble. That He’d skinned a live cat to harvest a psychedelic found only in the shallow feline lymphatic. That He’d been seen in a skullcap like a Jew and in the floppy diaper of a renunciate.

The farmhouse had a screened porch that faced a kink in the road. Worldly neighbors averted their eyes while secretly hoping they would recognize God when they saw Him. Kai smiled and her big teeth were streaked with metal.

There was a house up the road that new practitioners always rented. In fact, said Ray, it had probably been part of the original farmstead. Been one with the Sanctuary, at one time, he figured. Clapboards the color of dirty snow, porcupine quills like pine needles around the foundation. All that was left of the original farming family was the landlord in town and his cousin, a single, chinless hermit.

Why shouldn’t we have stumbled on God in the form Ivanovich?

It wasn’t that God was distant from people, said Ray; it was that people were all fear and rhetoric. It wasn’t that God was inside now, after centuries of being a dichotomous old bully. It wasn’t that there was no more meat and no more doe-eyed vegetables. What was it?

Ray said the original juxtaposition was God and Human. But you didn’t say God anymore.

What replaced Him?

Some combination of self-improvement and the supernatural.

Ray believed in reincarnation, UFOs, vitamins. He had been to India and seen old men with jackal haunches squatting to shit on the beaches. He had eaten off banana leaves, swallowed fire, and he had taken snuff in the front seat of a Taj Mahal tour bus with the red-eyed driver, red-toothed from betel.

He had bowed to long-horned cows and bicycle rickshaws garlanded with rotting jasmine.

One frigid purple morning he had hiked above Darjeeling to see the white plaster mountainhead of Kanchenjunga.

He had read about meditation and sat cross-legged (he was tall, blond-bearded and loose-jointed. His balls were cold against the floor, though) and watched his breathing roll out like sea surf. He wasn’t sure if his obstacles of thought were unique but he had read that a spiritual teacher could break them down like the mineral deposits of arthritis.

Penny Del Deo, our sponsor, was an American our mother had met through some talks at an alternative bookshop in Halifax. Our mother said Penny had been an actress. That gorgeous laugh? Ray conceded she was pretty, like a little girl in a woman’s body, pert nose and ah-ha eyebrows, but I could see my sister thought Penny Del Deo was the first truly beautiful person our family had ever made a friend of.

Penny was not content to go bobbing through her days on an outside authority—the dominant culture, she said, or for that matter Jimmy Carter—that advised over loudspeakers hidden in trees, “Store-bought bread and Coca-Cola!” She told us it had been two years since she’d eaten from a supermarket.

There was a new language to explain how our parents had spontaneously opened. Penny warned that further opening could feel like fear. Fear was just a farting old guard dog. Guarding fear. Guarding the empty chest in the empty chamber in the empty temple. Emptiness was bandied about as if it were something, Ray offered.

Penny tipped her shapely head and said there was a chance that Ray and Cleary were emerging from their own Kaliyuga, twelve thousand years of subhuman vulgarity. There’s a chance He really is God, said Penny, and what Ray liked was that she made it sound like there was a chance He wasn’t, which validated the Age of Experiment, of Optimism, of Spiritual Sanity, and when Penny and Cleary laughed at him he threw up his hands and laughed with them.

“Anyway,” said Penny. “Wait till you hear Him play.”

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