April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that leaves a vague sense of having been an earthworm in a previous life.
By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete, not jasmine or honeysuckle, diesel fumes, steaks cackling over mesquite; nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the glorious height of its blooming season.
Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance, chipping with an ice pick at the solid inch of salt atop my cold, tart margarita-on-the-rocks. Tonight I must attend a Leadership Class. Titled “Managing for the Organizationally Challenged,” it offers “useful strategies for ADD/ADHD sufferers,” on the apparent assumption that we’ve already exhausted the useless ones.
Arriving, parking, and going through my mental checklist—“clip keys to purse handle, lock doors, note car location”—I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west—always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, hinting at secrets in those backlit hills: The Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, but you must find the Enchanted Quarter-Acre. Sighing, I enter the windowless building and follow the unmistakable pre-class hum of desultory conversation and languid laughter.
There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor says, “Find a seat, folks,” gesturing to the floor with a small laugh, we plop down complacently on the industrial-grade carpeting.
The instructor—“Sheila,” if her name tag is to be believed—is young, blonde, and busy, answering questions, emptying a large tote, then handing out single sheets of paper to the floor-sitters. She catches my eye, all confident, intelligent energy, as she works her way back to my corner. Over the heads of a half-dozen dark-suited up-and-comers, she sends two pages sailing. I catch them neatly, giving one to the jean-clad woman behind me. She is sitting on a small, quilted pillow. Has she been tipped off about the absence of furniture?
I glance incuriously at the letter-size sheet. In the years to come I will wish I had kept my copy, though it contains only four or five lines in the familiar Courier font. Perched on a bare table someone has scavenged from a closet, Sheila clears her throat and conversation dies down. With little introduction and no fanfare, she explains what we are to do, elaborating on the written instructions.
First, we have to “find a partner—someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I have been chatting with Diane, the woman in jeans, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow half-smile that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.
Hearing the words “find a partner” normally triggers certain neuronal activity in my frontal lobe. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says, “Find a partner.” Neurons fire; my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines; the freckles on my nose become warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse—something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot—something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.
Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax… which happens to be the next instruction. Sheila leads the way with a mercifully short, straightforward meditation. I’ve sat imprisoned in guided meditations so elaborate and drawn out it would have been more practical to go to the actual ocean and be lulled by the lapping of the actual waves.
Sheila suggests, in a cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on. “Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck rolls, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.
Now it’s time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) holds in her mind the image of a person she knows. Diane volunteers to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about her “person”: gender, age, and location. Diane’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.
My job (as Student B) is to describe that person—through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Diane and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.
“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”
You’ll feel like you’re making it up—seven words with the force of a Light Saber; one sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.
According to the rules, Diane can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my responses. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).
I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge… and I nail it, right from the get-go. Diane’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority. He’s about five-foot-ten. He has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair—a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.
I glance at Diane for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. He’s standing in front of a house in the foothills, I say, sketching a long, low, dark-green house that faces north, toward the Catalina Mountains. He’s beside the front door, a few feet from a curved white-gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense—like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Diane until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.
“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.
“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”
I have unerringly and meticulously described Diane’s ex-husband—his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.
The room goes from quiet to unruly, as if the dismissal bell has just rung. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the chatter in the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.
Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I’d seen a half-hour earlier. The air had been flat and stale; now it vibrates with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Zimmy has apparently concluded that his partner, Ben, is some kind of sorcerer, having described Zimmy’s family’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered natural-pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the otherwise white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”
The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly flabbergasted like the rest of us. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.
“You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just shared a moment of cosmic awareness. See how strong you are?” Then she starts passing out worksheets on the difference between management and leadership.
Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.
Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar in numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women….
When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them… like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dormitory lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”
But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Shared Consciousness—that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.
 These meditations were sometimes led by women making unfortunate attempts to croon hypnotically and channel the Ascended Masters. You will perhaps recall Feather Barnswallow, née Muriel Louise Bean. At some point in the late 1960s—Feather BS is unclear on the details—she succumbed to the shame of being a Caucasian American, began referring to herself as the Honorary Little Sister of the Sioux, and gathered disciples as misguided as she was. Individually and in clumps, the Little Sisters crisscrossed the country leading chants and meditations in a manner remarkably similar to Galadriel’s in The Lord of the Rings just before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on a 40,000-volt joy ride. Amazingly, I met my first Spirit Guide, Hattie McDaniel, at one of Feather B’s retreats.
Mary Campbell, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, is a writer, musician, writing coach, and meditation instructor whose poetry has received awards from the Kansas Poetry Society and the Arizona Poetry Society. A longtime writer and editor at the University of Arizona, Mary is the author, coauthor, editor, or ghostwriter of more than twenty books, including Lived to Tell, by Edward Keonjian; Section 27: A Century on a Family Farm, by Mil Penner; and Ready, Set, Organize, by Pipi Campbell Peterson and Mary Campbell. She has written or cowritten hundreds of songs, poems, stories, essays, news and magazine features, blog posts, and podcasts. Mary has composed for and directed children’s and adults’ choirs; has led church-school, preschool, and meditation classes; has taught in a nationwide children’s ballroom-dance program; and has produced three children and nine grandchildren.