Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chapter Three From Treehouse to the Great Hall and Back Again

Chapter Three   From Treehouse to the Great Hall and Back Again

“Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.” ― Annie  Besant


The first month in Ojai I spent most of my free time in the treehouse alone. I would read and meditate and stare out at the mountains and ask myself: What would Annie have me do? But honestly, it was clear what she wanted, I was simply not doing it. I was procrastinating and scared.

I knew the Theosophical headquarters, Krotona, was less than a mile away—in fact, from the front yard I thought I could spot the faint image of orange tiled roofs over stately white stucco buildings. But instead of going there, I would retreat to the treehouse to read books on Annie instead. Annie and all the people in her life were characters in my head: my private dream. Perhaps I was a little unwilling to share it.

What if I didn’t like the people at Krotona or what if they didn’t like me? I could be told I wasn’t a card holding Theosophist and had no right to be “prying.” Maybe they wouldn’t say it like that, but still…I could be disappointed by who I found there: cold indifferent people, or worse yet, occultists with penetrating eyes that would find me unworthy of their secrets. What were those secrets anyway?


I read everything I could--but it was hard to understand why Theosophy and spiritualism were sweeping through England and America at the turn of the century with such power. Why would the upper class British—such perfectly rational people— be swayed into believing that “Masters” existed on other planes of existence and that they actually communicated through letters? It was easy to understand how the early Theosophists were like the old guard of the “New Age” with beliefs in reincarnation, karma and vegetarianism. I liked that they upheld a public face that looked more like open-minded Unitarianism. However it didn’t take much more reading to discover that there was an esoteric side to the group—a belief in spiritual Masters and invisible worlds—that wasn’t shared openly with the average person...and that was me.

I knew that Krotona sat perched on 12 acres high on a hill, looking East over the Ojai Valley. Most people in Ojai had heard the names of Ojai’s “Patron Sages” Annie Besant and Krishnamurti. They knew of Besant Rd and many remembered the hundreds of people that used to arrive in town every spring to sit on their blankets on the lawns of the Oak Grove School to hear Annie’s adopted son, Krishnamurti, speak. But not many people realized that these gatherings weren’t just a phenomena of the 1960’s but had their origin back in 1922 when Krishnamurti first came to the valley. He’d come in hopes that the hot dry weather in the valley would cure his sick brother of tuberculosis.

I was gathering facts. I found out that in the 1920’s Ojai was the ‘talk of the town’ in nearby Hollywood, and people such as John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley, and many others made their way to Ojai to befriend the young, and very handsome, Krishnamurti. Some wanted him to be the leading star in a movie on the Buddha, but it was Annie who had a bigger dream for Krishnamurti and Ojai.

Annie remembered that Helena Blavatsky (or HPB as they liked to call her) had foreseen a new spiritual awakening happening in America, and Annie felt that it was in Ojai that this new spiritual center for the New Age would arise. (Her New Age was the astrological movement from the Piscean Age to the Aquarian Age.) With that idea in mind, Annie bought up hundreds of acres of land for a center—money she had made in her speaking tours across America—and put it into establishing a high school in the upper Ojai, and even bought the town newspaper.

  In 1927 at the Ojai Valley Theatre, six years before her death, she proclaimed: “One of the beauty spots of the world is the Ojai Valley…mountains ring it round; it has remained secluded till recent times and is still but sparsely inhabited. The climate is suburb; orange trees laden with golden fruit grow in parts of it, as well as  apricots and lemons. The sun shines out from a sky of deepest blue, and as it sets behind the mountain peaks it paints the mountainside in various purples and violets. It paints a panorama that I have only seen rivaled in Egypt or in the rainy season in India. Such is the setting for the cradle of the new civilization in America.”

I began to know these things because we met our neighbor with the wandering horse (and the one who released the chickens out of the bathroom when our house was a commune.) It turns out that he was a wellspring of information about the valley. He had been Krishnamurti’s gardener in his later years, and sadly I discovered that “K” as he was known, had died just the year before. Our neighbor, Alisdair, was the gardener who worked on Annie’s land in the Upper Ojai, and who now worked for the famous potter Beatrice Wood. Beatrice was in her nineties now and she told him stories of how Annie, who was only 5 foot 2 inches tall, had such a profound impact on her. She was surprised at how warm Annie was to her~~and she felt that Annie had an integrity to her which was not totally naïve.


The day I made the decision to go up to Krotona, I was the one who felt naïve and vulnerable. I wore my favorite dress with the tapestry fabric across the top and took a little more time with my make-up than usual, as I wanted to look older, wiser, something more than what I was.

The first things that caught my eyes as I drove up the hill were the tall window arches that looked over the rose gardens. I parked my car and took the path that led by the water fountain and around the imposing building to the oversized front door.

Opening the wooden door the air felt cool as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. A couple of antique chandeliers lit up the room and a white haired woman sat at a desk at the rear. There appeared to be a library on my right and another room on my left.

And then—there she was! On the center wall of the main room was a huge portrait of Annie. It was as if I’d entered into my private dream—she looked down at me as if she’d almost been expecting me. I knew her well; my spiritual mother. I allowed the moment of meeting to nestle into me.

The painting must have been done when she was about seventy years old, and the graceful lines of her long robes reflected her quiet dignity. But her face revealed much more. The corners of her mouth drooped slightly, perhaps revealing a sadness? But the eyes were clear, kind and steady, although the skin around her cheeks fell in weary folds. She sat proudly, her hand prominently placed on her knee—perhaps she wanted us to notice this unusual ring bequeathed to her by Madame Blavatsky. And I knew that beneath that hand was her wounded knee—a tell-tale mark left from her days with the 'Match Girls' in London.

It felt like a daydream. Until now Annie was like a figment of my imagination and there she was up on their wall! Here she was real--I felt a rush of excited energy come over me. And there, on another wall, was a smaller portrait of Krishnamurti.

I peered into the curved door leading to a library. No one was in that dark wood paneled library, a room that looked more like a backdrop for a scene in “My Fair Lady” than for a library in sunny California.

Slowly the white haired woman who’d been sitting in the back approached me. She stuck out her hands: “I’m Sylvia, so nice to meet you.”

“Janet. Janet Spring.” Sylvia’s hands encircled mine as if we were old friends meeting again. “Ahh….this is a bit of a shock for me to be here.” I looked up to the painting of Annie. “I’ve been writing about her—oh, not a lot or anything much, really, but she found me and…well…I’m here now, not in Rhode Island anymore. Hah! It’s like in the Wizard of Oz, I’m not in Kansas anymore.” A shiver ran through me. “It’s like Annie was just a character in my head, and now she’s here!

Sylvia seemed to take on the look of the good Queen of the East. Or was it Glinda? She put her hand on my shoulder and led me to a large high ceiling room with a stage at one end. Could there be concealed paintings or statues behind those golden curtains?  The room smelled of something—the place reeked of secrets.

 “You must come to our meeting on Tuesday night in the Great Hall here. There’ll be a talk on the energy centers in the body; the chakras. It’s open to everyone.” She led me to a window where I could see a pergola leading to a climbing water fountain and a grove of trees. “And walk around the gardens, visit the book store, wander through the community if you have time. Most of us who work here full time, live here as well.” She stared at me for a split second longer than I was comfortable with, but seemed to catch herself: “The esoteric section is over there in that building, but they’re closed this afternoon.” Sylvia smiled at me as much with her eyes as with her lips. She paused, head tilted, and lowered her voice: “You have such a radiance about you, do you know that?”

 I laughed. “I feel as if I’m in another world, a dream, and I love it.” Then a deeper stirring rose in me: “Something in me has come home.”

“I can tell. You were quite taken by that painting of Annie, weren’t you?”

I nodded.  She touched my hand. “I know this is sudden, but on Tuesday I was going to read this part of a speech Annie had once given….would you like to read it?” She took a piece of paper out of her pocket and held it out to me.

“These are Annie’s words?”  I said, taking the paper in my hands. I skimmed it, recognizing the words. It was part of a larger speech about life after death—a speech that could stop religious wars if only people would believe it. “I’d love to read this.” And that was true.


On Tuesday Sylvia introduced me at the meeting after the preliminary meditation, piano music and the reading of notes about last Tuesday’s gathering. There must have been about seventy-five people there; and I’d dare say no one was younger than me. Harry had accompanied me and sat smiling from the second row as I was called to the podium.

I rose to the stage feeling like an imposter and wondering why had Sylvia given this to me so quickly? But then I had another impulse—to throw up. I remember that Annie once said that she often had the same impulse before a speech, and sometimes the more nervous she was, the better the talk. I dared to hope.

I took out the paper, fingers squeezing the sides of the podium. I looked out over the room of expectant faces and taking a large breath I began speaking the words Annie had written so many years ago in her autobiography.

At first my words were slow as I wondered if my voice would hold, and then I let go into all the passion and clarity that Annie was known for:

“I have been told that I plunged headlong into Theosophy and let my enthusiasm carry me away. I think the charge is true—and let me here say that more than all I hoped for in that first plunge has been realized. I know, by personal experiment, that the Soul exists and that my Soul, not my body, is myself; that it can leave the body at will; that it can, disembodied, reach and learn from living human teachers, and bring back and impress on the physical brain that which it has learned; and that this process of transferring consciousness from one range of being to another is a very slow process, during which the body and brain are gradually correlated with the subtler form which is essentially that of the Soul.”

 I paused and looked up. Their eager eyes were on me, all except one. The room was absolutely silent; I felt upheld by their listening…except for one man. Someone had made room for a very old man to sit down next to Harry, and his head was drifting downward onto Harry’s shoulder. Oh dear…! I could see the head finally fell onto his shoulder but Harry’s eyes remained fixed on me.

"This same path of knowledge that I am treading is open to all others who will pay the toll demanded at the gateway -and that toll is willingness to renounce everything for the sake of spiritual truth, and willingness to give all the truth that is won to the service of man, keeping back no shred for the self.”

When I stopped they stood up and applauded! I was in shock. As I descended to my seat I caught Sylvia’s beloved smile. I stayed in a state of shock till the meeting was over and a woman named Joy came over exclaiming: “Why it’s almost as if Annie herself was delivering that speech!” I grinned. A small group of people stood around us as I introduced myself to each. It all felt so good and right. The feeling of being an imposter had gone. Only one thing didn’t feel right; it was my name. I didn’t feel like Janet anymore, but I wasn’t Annie either.

Harry led me home congratulating me on my new speaking “voice.” I could tell he was as surprised as I was. By morning I had found my new name. It had been coming for a long time as I’d never felt like a Janet and I had always felt very close to my mother’s mother: Elizabeth. I would now be Elizabeth, and it even pleased Harry and Sarah. Reinvention was not Annie Besant’s territory alone; it had now become mine as well.


Two days later a reporter from the Ojai newspaper called. They had heard that I was writing on the life of Annie Besant and Krishnamurti. Could they do an interview with me? I was more than surprised and more than willing.

By the next week there was a photo of me in the local paper and an article in which I relayed the major events in Annie’s life. As I held the newspaper I stared at the photograph. This woman looks like a serious writer, I thought. And her name was Elizabeth Spring.


I was in a stage of euphoria for that first day. But by the next day I noticed that it took longer for me to get to my desk—didn’t I need new curtains in that room? By the third day I was complaining to Harry how hard it was to do this writing and didn’t I need to upgrade that old typewriter to a word processor? The next day it was simply too beautiful a day to write inside…had I’d forgotten that almost every day in Ojai was sunny and warm? Each morning there was a mountain of resistance that had to be shoveled aside before I sat down to write. Sometimes I thought how stupid I had been. Why didn’t I just do this quietly and talk about it when it was done? Instead I had publicly committed to telling the story of Annie’s life, and now all I could see were the hours in the day melding into one long and back-aching, eye-straining experience. And it was going to go on and on—my God, it could take a year…or more.

Harry reminded me how lucky I was to be able to use the library at Krotona while dreaming into the story back on our lovely little hilltop. I guess it was as close as one could get to a writer’s paradise, but as all writers know, there are always critics—

“What do you mean it doesn’t quite work? It doesn’t flow? You don’t feel it! What’s that supposed to mean?” I screamed at Harry as if he were an idiot. I had finally written the first five pages. I waved my papers around. I cornered him as he tried to make an exit. “Don’t just stand there and tell me it’s not good—it has to be good!” I didn’t open the door to my writing room for a week: I read, questioned, and despaired.


And then I went back. One day while I was trying to read Madame Blavatsky’s great book: The Secret Doctrine, I saw Harry coming into the room. I slid the book to the side, trying to stuff it under a pile of papers as if it were pornographic. The book was too large; its frayed red and gold binding stuck out like loose hair.

“Hey, what’s happening? Your eyes are at half-mast. You don’t look happy, my dear, what’s wrong?” He sat down beside me.

I pulled out the heavy tome. “This is unreadable! Sentences roll on for paragraphs about avatars and planes of existence—it’s like pedantic science fiction! No one could ever read this! And yet her life…oh, Harry, I think Blavatsky embellished her genuine psychic ability with these letters from the “Masters” that she created—letters that would mysteriously appear and even fall from the ceiling! She didn’t need to do these tricks, these “phenomena.” Who’s fooling who here?”

“Sounds like Annie got fooled.” Harry opened the book and read: “The aim of this work is to show that nature is not a fortuitous concurrence of atoms, and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the Universe; to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; to uncover the fundamental unity from which they all spring, and finally to show that the occult side of nature has never been approached by the science of modern civilization.” He snapped it shut. “Doesn’t sound unreasonable; just wordy, kind of archaic itself. Why would Annie go for this?”

I stood up and started pacing back and forth: “Some of it makes sense in light of reincarnation: if true knowledge is a secret doctrine, then there must be a few who can pass it on…like that other teacher, Gurdjieff did, and the Rosicrucians who believe in a brotherhood of wise men. Many people believe that the Universe is full of evolving beings.” I stopped and then it hit home. “And it dealt with Annie’s first and last grudge against God—the problem of all the pain and the cruelty she saw--in this way she could see that suffering was logical, not random and part of a cycle of evolving lifetimes.”

“You sound like you’re on the council for her defense!”

I am! I’m trying to understand. You know what I think?” My finger started wagging. “Her mother let her down, God let her down, and so did her husband, and Shaw---I think she turned to HPB as to a mother; a kind of melancholy mother that she could help. From everything I read, Annie comes across as a deeply loyal person, but this would mean that she’d turn a blind eye to faults once her loyalty was given.” I stopped, sat down, and started jabbing my finger into the book. “But--I like that Annie fought for the under-dog, I like that she was anti-racist, that she was a feminist—but this occultism—it’s just too much. Too wordy; pedantic.” My finger did a final jab. 

“Now tell me what you really think.” Harry laughed. “Don’t get so upset. It’s a good story and as they say, ‘more may be revealed’—you don’t have all the information in yet. So for now you know that Annie took the good part of Theosophy and kind of cleaned it up; a little white-washing in the books. You told me she picked the best of Blavatsky’s ideas on karma and reincarnation and made it respectable for the British. She didn’t dwell on her “rantings and ravings.” Whereas the old Russian—she was the crazy one who probably believed her own tricks.”

I picked up the book reverently this time: “I don’t know if they were magic tricks or something more. Really, how can you know without studying her? I suspect she had a tragic life, this ‘priestess of the occult.’ Did you know that she picked up all her secret occult lore on her travels? She left Russia as a young girl and traveled around the world, dressed up like a boy, hanging around with swamis and yogis in Egypt and Tibet.” I stroked the cover. “And you know what, Harry? You know what is most strange? Or sad? I think Annie and HPB never stopped believing that there were Masters somewhere, somehow, who had real powers to do all the magical things that Madame herself had orchestrated.” I waved my hand in the air accentuating a sleight of hand. “How can we know what’s real and what isn’t?”

“You’ve got quite a story there—and my guess is that you don’t even know half of it.” He grinned from ear to ear as if he knew what that was; I surely didn’t. Then I closed the door to my study and went back out to the treehouse. (c) Elizabeth Spring



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