My oldest brother and I drove up the 405 freeway in his sleek new Audi 5000 surfboards on the roof and Steely Dan on the CD player. We’d just driven down to Trestles in San Clemente California and battled for waves all morning with the hottest surfers from Orange County. Trestles was the epicenter of the surf industry and also their proving grounds. It is an amazing wave, a perfect peak made for doing high-performance turns. It was far better than anything near Manhattan Beach where my brother lived. We hadn’t turned any heads but had at least gotten a few good waves.
Jack sat in the driver’s seat chewing Nicorette gum. As I looked over at him he was the picture of what I would call “success.” He drove a nice car, lived in a nice house, had a wife and a daughter and lived life with an energy and joy that were magnetic. He and I looked somewhat alike but that was where the similarities ended. He was more powerfully built and his personality far more dynamic and outgoing. He worked as a Commercial Real Estate Investor. His job was extremely high-flying financially but he seemed to thrive on the stress rather than be beaten up by it. I was 14 years younger and attending UCLA as a Fine Art major. I lived in my 1967 Chevy Van and felt very self conscious about it. I was introverted and reclusive. I struggled with anxiety in large groups and had a part-time job I hated waiting tables.
We didn’t know each other when I was growing up. When I was 4 he was 18 and already out of the house and off to college. There were 7 siblings in our family and he was the oldest. All hell was breaking loose when he left and he pretty much stayed away. My parents had a contentious and messy divorce and my mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Myself and the other 3 youngest brothers had moved with my mother to San Diego while Jack had joined the Hare Krishnas in Denver. My mother, a devout Catholic had disowned him, forbade contact and threw away his letters and gifts. I hadn’t really known him at all until after my mother died. I had been 14 at the time.
The first time I saw him he arrived with a shaved head and a ponytail. He wore a robe and was wearing prayer beads. He seemed other worldly and sort of scary. He, his wife, Devi, and his cherubic little daughter, Anjali, all arrived at our house in a big Chevy van. They brought us gifts of sweets and smelled of exotic oil and incense. At 14, growing up in a sheltered suburb in San Diego, I’d never seen anything like them. Our mother had warned us that he’d been “brain-washed.” She made sure we read the Ted Patrick books describing how these “cults” worked. They would lure in unprotected or lost young people by offering them food and shelter and then either through drugs or deprivation convert them into their cult. Ted Patrick wrote books about how to “rescue” these poor kids from the cults and by using similar methods as the cults, “deprogram” the kids back into normal Christian-American society. He had scary black and white photos of the process of deprogramming that looked like a scene out of the “Exorcist.” Jack had arrived on the day before my mother passed away and his timing had also seemed otherworldly, as if he knew when she was going to die. He had been gone for 10 years and then suddenly he was back. He stayed for Mom’s funeral and then all the siblings went surfing. The one thing we all had in common was surfing. Jack hadn’t surfed once in 10 years and he exuded pure joy out in the water that first time. We still thought he was weird but at least he liked surf. It seemed he wasn’t entirely lost.
Now 7 years later he sat next to me driving a very nice new european sedan chewing his Nicorette gum as if he wanted torch it with every grind. “So how’s school going.” he asked as we sped down the freeway. “It’s good.” I answered. “Sometimes kinda frustrating that I have to take other classes besides Art to get my degree though.” “Yeah, like what?” he asked. “Philosophy is really annoying.” I answered. “I really don’t care what Descartes thinks about existence.” I just want to learn how to draw and paint.” “So you’re not interested at all in what we’re doing here?” He said looking over for a moment. ” It’s not that.” I answered. “I guess it just doesn’t seem like he has a point. I think therefore I am? What kind of answer is that?” “I get it.” he said now staring down the road again. “So what do you think…about existence? Do you have an opinion?” “Hmmm”, I thought. “Dangerous territory here.” My mother had warned me about my brother and his cult. I was concerned that with all his new fast lane looks and lifestyle he was still a potential wildcard and I should be careful.
I considered for a moment. Ever since I had arrived in LA Jack and I had been getting to know each other. He had opened his home to me and given me a base to rest and refuel before getting back on the street. Our family home was sold out of necessity to pay off debt when I was 18 so I hadn’t had a place to rest and collect myself since I moved in with my girlfriend at 17. Jack’s house was the first place I had been able to retreat to since then. I never stayed for more than a meal or a movie but having a place to go, be inside and feel loved was priceless. Jack and I played racquetball once a week at his “club.” He belonged to a health club that featured all the best fitness equipment and classes in a very upscale environment. We would play in the early evening when he was done with work. I would time my arrival to his place from West LA so we could immediately head off to play. We bonded during those matches the way men do, trying with everything we had to beat each other. I might win a game here or there but Jack always took the best 2 out of three. As a competitor he was very fierce. After that we would return to his place and have dinner. Sometimes his wife Devi would have made a meal but many times he would make us some Dal or Mung bean soup with chapatis. Many nights I’d hang out and watch a little TV or chat with with his daughter Anjali and wife Devi. It was very comforting and they were very kind. I reasoned that whatever my mother had said regarding his cult may have been skewed. After all I had read a few books disputing the Christian version of the universe and wasn’t on board with that version anyway. I guess I was at least willing to open my mind to what he had to say.
“What do I think about what? The meaning of existence?” “yeah” he said. Any thoughts?” I did have some, but so did he. As it turned out he had considered it in depth. “Hare Krishna”or “Vedanta” was a philosophy he found during a search through many other ideas and writings. Upon arriving the Krishna temple he had become engaged with an ancient and profound exploration of their writings and teachings. That surf trip turned into an unforgettable introduction to these. I couldn’t help but find it interesting even as he had. I didn’t tell him at the time but I didn’t identify with my body as it was and never had. I had always felt more like a woman than a man and it was very confusing for me. This philosophy actually addressed this situation. “None of us are this body” he explained one night a few weeks later. I had become his student and he kept feeding me books to read. “This is just one life of many and this physical body only a garment we change as precious as a coat left at a bus stop.”
Our relationship deepened and our connection strengthened with my new understanding of who he was and another thing we both shared in common. I found an interesting new way to see my inner conflict and my brother had finally come home in my heart. Through this time and our interaction I began to feel at home even in the huge city of Los Angeles. I learned that wherever I went my siblings and I always had each other. For us home isn’t a place but a simple knowing we are all connected.