Wednesday, March 21, 2018

My Own Private Oregon

Crazy Guru or gifted Saint?

I just finished watching Wild Wild West on Netflix. It's probably not what you'd think. It's a documentary about the Rajneesh Bhagwan aka OSHO who had a commune or community in Oregon for four years, and all of the mayhem, legal and interpersonal, that went along with it. This all happened on a tract of land that was adjacent to a small town in Oregon called Antelope. How these people coped with the influx of thousands of international migrants, formerly homeless individuals (whom the Rajneeshis dumped out when they no longer needed them) and the outside invasions I wonder... but it absolutely fits the definition of a cult. And, it still exists (back in India)and still has adherents almost thirty years after the Bhagwan died. I've been fascinated with cults for as long as I can recall. Just lately, I watched the entire Patty Hearst saga. I've preached and read about them throughout my ministry. I think the fact that humans can be so willingly misled and so easily convinced to follow an evil leader is theologically very significant. Short version here

Surely, we see this now in our own national political mess.

Map shows town of Antelope & John Day Fossil Beds

But I also thought: Darn, I didn't know about this when I went through Oregon. I could have checked it out.

But, it's too late now. The former Rajneeshpuram has been made in a Christian Camp for Young Life, a campus evangelical organization with a world-wide following who, as a townsperson says (Really, I've never seen anyone as mellow as these townspeople!) " a kind of sect, too, but at least they're not running around naked and poisoning people and carrying AK-47s"

some of the ten restaurants where over 750 people were poisoned in an attempt to suppress to vote and sway the county election by the Rajneeshis

I have a fuzzy memory of my original yoga teacher in NJ talking about this guru with all these fancy cars (Bhagwan had ninety Rolls Royces) but I don't think he was someone she had admired or followed. From 1980-84 I had three pregnancies and two children, so I have almost no recollection of these events.

Bill & Louise Shellabarger

I heard about Oregon from the time I was young. Oregon was the place one of my aunts, my mother's sister Louise, the "baby" in the family of seven children, had gone off to after she'd married a soldier. They met either during or after WWII (Aunt Louise was in the WACS, an acronym no one bothered to explain to me, and which, like so many things, I didn't feel emboldened to ask about).When she was spoken of, quite often, it was with a sense of awe and reverence, as one might speak of the departed.

This because in those days, few people could afford to fly across country, and the one or two road trips people made in their life times became legendary. In fact, my own parents had made such a trip with my mother's parents (and Louise's) and there were photos to prove it, my granny and Pop-Pop standing side by side in front of an old roadster, arms at their sides, my grandfather in a suit and felt hat, Granny in her go-to flowered shirtwaist and clunky oxford shoes. It may have been my parents' honeymoon, in-laws included.
Louise, front right. Back row: Marjorie (my mother), Mary Ruth (Aunt Ruthie), Mora (died young), Aunt Adele (wife of Uncle Wade who died of alcoholism), Front: Joyce, (died of alcoholism).

I'm told the Shellabargers came east and saw us as infants, but after that, the only visits were made by my Aunt Ruthie, who survived all her brothers and sisters, and lived to be 86. Louise died suddenly of a heart attack (as did my mother, my uncle J.D., and those others who did not die of alcoholism or die tragically young.)

Shortly after my divorce, I did what almost everyone thought was a foolhardy thing, and took my two young and very active sons on a road trip. We traveled in a great arc around the country, hitting 21 states and a multitude of National Parks. After that trip, I entered seminary, to pursue my (also deemed foolhardy)  notion of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, and turmoil ensued: a custody battle, which most of all damaged my sons, years of upheaval, and later, challenges they would both take years to resolve. I am so glad we had that summer, that trip, that foolhardy journey.

Casey, me, Colin, Buckaroo

Naturally, Oregon was a goal. (I also recall that we all said AH-regahn, just like we said FLAH-rida, and AH-range. A NJ thing.) Sometimes, you hear certain family myths all your life, and you start to think they aren't true... they're just stories, completely false or partly made up. I recall that Aunt Ruthie did fly out to see Louise several times during my childhood, and it wasn't Ruthie but maybe my dad or uncle who I can remember saying about Bill and Louise that they let the cat walk around on the table and eat the butter. Clearly they were appalled by this. And they, in turn, must have left an inverse impression on them (which got passed along) because when I finally met my cousin Nelson, she said she always imagined us living in a city where there was no grass, only concrete (we lived in South Jersey on 4 acres, very rural) and that we drank our coffee with our pinkies in the air.

But I am getting ahead of myself! What intrigued me the most about stopping in Oregon to meet these people (it was 1991 and Louise had died by then some years earlier) were their names. I'd always been fascinated with the name "Nelson" for a girl, but Aunt Ruthie had been telling me that Nelson now had a son named Buckaroo. How could that be? And this of course intrigued my sons, ages 6 and 9, as well. Who would saddle (pun intended) their kid with a name like Buckaroo?

John Day Fossil Beds NM

The first stop we made in Oregon was at John Day Fossil Beds. What a cool place! First, let me say this trip was pretty much un-planned. We stuck a big map on the wall of our living room for several months before we went and charted out a route based upon things people suggested or things we really wanted to see. But about three days in, near Johnstown, PA, we (or really I) made a decision that we would 1) stick to National Parks and monuments because I suddenly realized they were virtually free, tons better than anything you could pay for, and unique hidden treasures. (Back then, there were fully-funded Ranger Talks and programs.) Now, over 35 years later, I have my Senior Pass.... and 2) take as many random suggestions and invitations as we realistically could along the way. Yes, I now realize this sound extremely dangerous. I still think I'd do it again. But, I digress. I've written an entire book about that trip. 

For what ever reason (I know mine, just not his) Colin and I agreed we would come back to live in the Ranch House at John Day when he grew up. Like, somehow, just he and I were going to get the house from the National Parks and live in it with nobody else. That never happened.

Ranch House, John Day, Oregon

 But guess what did happen? Colin lived in Oregon this winter, near the coast, where he worked on a crabbing boat. Nelson and her family aren't in Oregon anymore. Or he'd have visited them. He gets his wanderlust and spontaneity from me, I'd say.

Colin (left) with crab haul

We then went to see Crater Lake, also a National Park, but a much more well-known one, because so many people had recommended it. I was pretty determined to get to the places I wanted to get to throughout the trip, so I just forged ahead, but I recall seeing more and more and more snow as we ascended, and the road was pretty treacherous. We set up our tent after dark, in the snow, but ended up sleeping in the car. It was pretty, but we headed back to the Visitor Center by noon.

From there I called my cousin. I didn't bring a phone number with me. I called information. The only reason I was able to find her is that Shellabarger is an uncommon name. If I'm not mistaken, I reached my cousin Bill, her brother, and he gave me her number. She was delighted to hear from us, and told us where to meet her, at a bar up the road from the ranch they live and worked on, so that was that. We had a great visit. The kids went fishing, and Buckaroo was everything his name could have made you dream of. He swaggered out in boots and a big ten gallon hat, and they ended up trading the hat and boots to the kids for tapes and Patagonia shorts.She had a box of old pictures in her mobile home, and we poured over them. What family does. At a certain point she looked down and said, look. We have the same hands. I wish I'd taken a picture.

What amazes me most about that trip through Oregon, finding my cousin, and having my kids meet their cousins Buckaroo and John how easy it all seemed, with no GPS, just maps, no cell phones, just phone booths, and no way to even know if where we were going or staying along the way was safe. I was truly indomitable at that point on my life. I was 36.

I returned to Oregon  (Portland) a few years ago, as a minister, when our denomination held its annual assembly there. My full-time professional ministry was winding down, and I was half way through a two-year interim ministry in NJ. It was a joy to attend the sessions and the workshops this time. I could treasure the things I knew I'd not see but perhaps a time or two again. I stayed at an Airbnb some distance from the convention center, and took a bus to the gatherings. It was in a funky, eclectic neighborhood, and I enjoyed checking out the cafes and bistros and one day, accepted the gift of a bicycle tour from my airbnb host (who was also a tour guide). It's a hilly city, but I was riding a brand-new electric bike, and we were offered legal marijuana at stops along the way. I didn't partake, since I didn't own the bike.. but the views and company were fabulous, even un-enhanced.

That was an entirely different Oregon. So was the Japanese garden and tea house I found nestled right in the middle of a busy city block, walled off, peaceful, elegant, utterly restful and serene. At that particular General Assembly, we'd just heard about the Charleston shootings, and I recall sitting with a dear colleague, watching as President Obama broke in to "Amazing Grace" at the Reverend's funeral. I needed space and time to process this, and so much more. It seemed fitting that the ministry I was about to launch on my first visit was ending there in Oregon. So much heartbreak. loss, and disappointment had come between those two visits and yet there I was. I had enormous gratitude for what remained.

As I became more engaged in anti-racism writing and reading, it came across my radar that Oregon had been intended as an all-white state. So, this same place, of majestic and serene beauty, of kooks and ranchers and hippies, tree-huggers and foresters and tea houses and crabbing boats, is all one place. It's the same place where the Bundy brothers took over the bird sanctuary. It's the place where my daughter's best friend from Smith College comes from, even though I imagined she'd have have some upper crust friends from the Cape, you know, it was Prina, whose parents had emigrated from India, and owned a hotel/motel in the small community of Redmond, with whom she bonded. Oregon!

In that same way, each of us is at once one and yet many different persons.Whitman: I am large. I contain multitudes. It's so hard for me to remember this when I look at others... so hard! But it's also hard to remember about myself. I'm not the person everyone wants me to be or expects me to be or that even I expect myself to be. I have hidden tea houses in me and I also have crimes against humanity. Don't you? Sometimes, I can see Mt. Olympia and sometimes I am trying to call someone, and I am calling, but they aren't there, and no one is there, and who I need to call is gone forever. The best lesson for me is that if I had never traveled with my sons, or taken the chance to meet my cousin, or find that tea house, if Colin hadn't jumped onto that crab boat, we wouldn't know a thing. That's what Oregon's taught me. So far.