October 12th, 2017
Here’s a game I play sometimes when I wake up in the early hours and can’t fall back asleep. Imagine you made a different choice at one of the crossroads of your life. For instance: imagine I chose a university based on what I loved (literature) rather than what I thought I loved (wildlife science). Imagine I didn’t spend my late teenage years smoking so much pot. Imagine I stayed in one place rather than moving constantly. Imagine I visited Italy in the summer of 2001 rather than early spring, and never met the Australian I would end up marrying. Imagine my first birth was easy, and I never had postnatal depression. Imagine I never fell pregnant, and never married, and lived alone in the mountains somewhere, with mismatched teacups and rescued shelter dogs.
Perhaps I love this game because it reminds me of what I have learned as a fiction writer: that so much of our lives can turn on a single moment – a strange and random fate.
In my university days I was a strict vegetarian, and once a Hare Krishna from a farm in North Carolina came to our animal rights club meeting and spoke to us in his quiet, calm voice about the intentional community he lived on. I was enthralled. I was still figuring out who I was but I knew, at that stage, what I rejected: the consumer culture, the status quo, the production line of matching sorority and fraternity kids with the same hair and sweatshirts and cans of Miller Light. I wanted something different. I wanted to do meaningful work – I just didn’t yet know what that work was.
There was something remarkable in the Hare Krishna’s differentness. He had a shaved head except for a small patch at the back of the crown – a tiny high rattail. He had clear blue eyes, crinkled at the edges from smiling. His skin was tanned from working outdoors, cheeks wind-burned. He spoke with a soft southern twang, asking as many questions as he answered. He wore distinctive saffron robes and was probably the age that I am now. Afterwards we walked out of the meeting together and he invited my friend and I to come and visit his farm. We could stay for the weekend, he said. We would love how beautiful it was: the land, the mountains, the goats.
I nodded. Yes, I would come. We talked more outside in the gathering dusk, it was that time of year where you can wear sleeveless shirts and shorts and marvel at the soft warm air against your skin. If it had been chilly I might have left then, and gone home, but instead we lingered and asked more questions, personal questions about his life.
He was married, he told us, with children. A lot of children, I think it was four or five. He said that in the faith, a man and woman only had sex for the purpose of procreation. His wife’s duty, he said, was to be a mother and wife, the more devoted she was the more likely she would be reborn a man in another life. The husband, on the other hand, should not be too attached. His duty was to Krishna, and if he was too interested in his wife or other women, he might come back in the body of a woman in his next life.
Gosh, and who’d want that? I said, or something similar, and he backtracked. I heard his voice rise and tighten, try to smooth those earlier words. You would be surprised, he said, at the equality with men and women. Both could be priests. Come to the farm and we would see for ourselves the way it worked. The beauty of it all.
We said goodbye, gave him our phone numbers, made loose plans. It was dark when I walked to the dining hall to eat, then to finish my assignments back in my dorm room for the following day.
I remember looking at the plastic dining hall trays and the salad bar of stale croutons and browning iceberg beneath the fluorescent lights. The sallow skin of students who spend too much time indoors, the pimples and pizza grease, the smell of bleach and wasted food where you bus your tray.
I was overcome with desire for a simpler, wholesome life. Not to wake up in a loft bed hungover at 11am on a Sunday, wondering where my weekend had gone. Away from a dorm room scattered with crushed pizza boxes, discarded outfits, paper towel rolls with dryer sheets rubber banded on the end, empty jugs of Carlo Rossi burgundy beside the sink.
But when the phone rang the next day, when the Hare Krishna called in his sweet, serious voice and asked was I coming, I said no. I told him I had an assignment due. These were the years before I knew that truth was easier, because you only had to speak it once. Instead I kept making up lies. He called again and again, for weeks he called, until finally I think he realised what was going on. He stopped trying to convince me to visit the farm.
But I was so close to saying yes for a moment; I teetered on the edge. Had I seen the farm first, before learning about their chaste marriages and chafing patriarchy I would have been easy to convince. Because more than anything then I wanted out. I wanted something or someone to come along to take me as far as imaginable from ordinary life. Fuck what was expected of me, I wanted something strange and wonderful, a totally different path. But it turned out that so many of the countercultures I considered kept to those same screwed up systems I wanted out of.
The wolf was still there – he just wore a different disguise: orange robes, a tie-dyed shirt, yoga pants.
In that early hour – the time before dawn – I like to imagine what would have happened had I gone to the Hare Krishna farm. When I fall back to sleep I dream of goats and physical labour, sun ravaged faces and great big pots of vegetarian food. When I wake up I wonder, how long would I have lasted?
What other lives might you have lived?