Samantha Stevens, Mary Poppins, and Neem Karoli Baba
Behind the Story for The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn
I grew up in the 60’s in Littleton, Colorado, which was then a brand new suburb south of Denver and decades away from its Columbine infamy. Like other young couples in post WWII affluent America, my parents set out to make the safest, cleanest, most homogenous place they could to start a family.
What they didn’t realize was that their efforts provoked, in most of us, their children, a deep craving for everything they’d struggled to save us from. We craved dingy, non-sterile places to hide and dream, we sought un-manicured nature with its idiosyncrasies and risks. We grew up suspicious of structure and establishment. We found we liked the patina of tradition, any tradition (as long as it wasn’t our own) and people who were different from us and our clan. What they had no way of knowing when they built the clean white suburbs was that we needed grit, risk and ‘other’ even in the midst of clean, safe and same. We found out we were capable of getting grit, risk and ‘other’ from anywhere and anything.
In 1964, when I was seven in Littleton, LBJ was in the White House. We were at war in Vietnam and the civil rights and anti-war protests were in full swing at home, but the most important thing that happened to me that year was a new TV show on Thursday nights called “Bewitched.” The show was about Samantha Stevens, an ordinary suburban housewife, who happened to be a witch. The house and neighborhood on the show looked much like my Littleton house and neighborhood. The housewife, though prettier than most of the moms in my neighborhood, was a fair TV approximation of young suburban housewives. Except that she was a witch. She possessed magical powers. Right there in the suburbs pretending to be like everyone else.
I was thrilled by the idea. She could be anyone, I realized, even someone in Littleton. It occurred to me with all the punch of a life-altering event that Samantha Stevens could be me, or, more to the point, I could be her, someday. I desperately wanted to believe it, in spite of the flimsy misogynistic storylines, which, even at seven years old, I knew to be badly written and uninspired. I knew exactly what I was after in “Bewitched”: the possibility of a benevolent super-human with god-like powers existing in my world. The possibility of a divine one among us.
Being seven, I checked to see if I was magical and had somehow missed that crucial detail. If I had magic powers and didn’t know it, I wanted to know it now. I practiced wiggling my nose and tried conjuring the power to move ashtrays across coffee tables, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make anything happen. The possibility had to be enough to sustain me.
Disney released the movie “Mary Poppins” with Julie Andrews the same year. Here was another role model, another motherly character who possessed magical powers and used them to help the children in her care. Children very much like me. Mary Poppins had an edginess that Samantha Stevens didn’t have. Mary Poppins was egotistical and capable of lashing out. She was unmarried and (dare I say it) possibly sexual underneath her maidenly exterior. Everyone around her was awed and afraid of Mary Poppins, and rightly so. She could bite your head off as easily as give you a magical trip through a chalk picture. Mary Poppins and Samantha Stevens had distinctly different styles but it was always clear to me that they were essentially the same: Good, fun, magical, motherly women masquerading as ordinary in order to benefit humankind. In other words, they were divine. And I was hooked.
Seven years later in 1971, when I was fourteen, and the country was tearing itself up over the war in Vietnam, I found myself deep in an adolescent angst beyond anything Samantha Stevens and Mary Poppins could fix. My best friend gave me a book called Be Here Now by someone named Ram Dass. I read it with the urgency of a drowning victim grabbing a floatation device. Here was a story of an American man who was disillusioned with success and the establishment I was hearing so much about but he was also disillusioned with drugs and free love and the anti-establishment I was edging towards. Be Here Now tells of Ram Dass’s journey to India and his subsequent meeting with Neem Karoli Baba, a guru in the Himalayas, who promptly ate a handful of Ram Dass’s LSD without any effects at all, thereby proving (to Ram Dass, at least) that consciousness is beyond the body and the mind. Here was evidence of other real people, not TV and movie characters, in search of magic, or divinity. And here was a report of an old Indian man who had the goods. I was convinced that this Neem Karoli Baba really could move ashtrays on coffee tables if he wanted to.
It was all there in the book: miracles and mystery, divine power and yogic practices that were designed to get you there. It was about as anti-Littleton as you could get, at the time. And I was fourteen, with a fertile imagination, ready to soak it all up. Here was plenty of grit, risk and ‘other.’ But being fourteen, I couldn’t go to India to find this Neem Karoli Baba for myself. My parents certainly weren’t going to take me there. I’d have to wait until I was older. Meanwhile, I did what I could. I read every word of the book many times. I practiced all the yoga and breathing and chanting prescribed in it. I began to meditate. I became a vegetarian. I learned to watch myself in my dreams. Two years went by.
And then I read somewhere that the guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had died. The news changed everything. He’d died before I could get to India. It was unbelievable, but true. I’d missed him. I’d missed the chance to meet a divine human being. I was devastated.
I finished high school. I moved to northern rural New Mexico and lived on a commune, apprenticed to a potter. I left and went to Italy and then to Minneapolis for art school. I concentrated on getting my BA in graphic design and pushed Samantha Stevens, Mary Poppins and Neem Karoli Baba to the back of my mind. I worked in a bar at night and went to class by day and a couple more years went by.
Then I met a man who said he knew a “spiritual teacher” who was so much like Neem Karoli Baba that Ram Dass and his other followers were with her in New York City. ” As soon as I could afford to, I went to New York to meet this “teacher.” I was twenty years old. The scene was colorful and musical. I was told it was “exactly like India” and that the “teacher” was the embodiment of Neem Karoli Baba. His western devotees gathered at her feet along with a lot of newcomers like me. We chanted and meditated. It was almost like I’d read about in Be Here Now, only Ram Dass, I was told, had recently had a falling out with the “teacher.”I stuck around anyway. I desperately needed to believe in the “magic” I had found. Anyway, other devotees of Neem Karoli Baba were there and they all said the “teacher” was the real thing. The yearning to find the divine in human form was back with a vengeance.
Being in the community meant giving everything you had to the “teacher.” Time, money, privacy, allegiance, mind and heart. As time went on, the people who had been with Neem Karoli Baba left the scene a few at a time. Dietary and sleeping restrictions were imposed. It got to where we were eating only blenderized salad and sleeping two hours a night. The chores and tasks became increasingly punitive. The sessions with the “teacher” became increasingly about “killing the ego” which seemed to mean making people feel bad about themselves and each other amidst a lot of talk about spiritual love.
Shortly after my twenty-second birthday, sick and tired of the scene, I slipped out of the evening session and went to see Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” instead. While watching it, I realized that I wanted back in the real world. It was a watershed moment for me.
When I got back to the ashram that night, something new was happening. Everyone was lining up to kiss the “teacher’s” feet. It was a command performance. The worth of each devotee was determined by the sincerity of their kiss. I watched and waited, unable to go along with the bizarre drama. I realized in a very profound way that I didn’t want to be there. I could see that this “teacher” was neither Samantha Stevens, Mary Poppins nor Neem Karoli Baba and I knew I had to get out. I packed my things and left that night. I’ll always be grateful to Woody Allen.
So, at twenty-two, I drove across the country in a dilapidated 1966 Mustang, disillusioned, sick, and exhausted from my failed search for the divine. I concentrated on working as a graphic designer. I finished my college education. I married. Life rolled on.
In 1990 I had a child and wanted to stay home with her. At the same time, burned out on the graphic design business, I decided to try something I’d always wanted to do: write novel-length fiction. It was an old dream, to write fiction, and it went back to early childhood, to my “Bewitched” and “Mary Poppins” days.
I was a housewife at long last, but without any magical powers. I was hardly Samantha Stevens, yet once in a while, when I was writing, something almost magical occurred. I began to learn to follow the wisest and truest thoughts and try to set them on paper. Writing, I could very occasionally touch a genuine mystery, a real kind of magic that I was learning to cultivate. I plodded through my first book five or six ways in as many years and in the end buried it in the plum orchard out back, not sure if I’d learned anything at all. But I kept writing and living.
Then I got the idea that I wanted to write a book about yearning for the divine; about what people will do to believe in their own salvation. During the six years of writing The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn I realized that since I had abandoned my search for divinity, thirty years of moments had gone by. I had experienced the joy of love, the pain of loss, the ties of family and responsibility. People I loved had been born and died. Wars had been fought but peace remained elusive. Political regimes came and went. I had been worn against the sand paper of my own ordinary life and now, when I wanted to find out what I knew, I realized the magic, the divine, had been there all along. It was in my early searches and my disillusionment. It was in my family and friends. It was in the eyes of strangers and in the pages buried in the plum orchard. And ever so gently, as if it was always meant to be, the writing about the yearning took on the essence of Samantha Stevens, Mary Poppins and Neem Karoli Baba, even as a story about Francesca, Chester, Sid and Anne emerged. I wrote The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn and found in myself a sweet, deep vein where the questions, themselves, are the answers.