TWENTY

Isolation

The winter Intensive and its aftermath left me with a confusing mix of thoughts and a compelling desire to make a change in my life. I had come to a crossroads. I became acutely aware of my own mortality--and Rose's--and felt the need to do something to get me back on the spiritual track before it was too late. But the same sense of mortality made the idea of living a "normal" life--whatever that is--more attractive, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to just drop everything and start over. The sense of wonder--the magic--that first drew me to Rose had vanished, and in its absence two seemingly conflicting desires had taken its place. I felt I had to make a decision. I had to either make a sincere spiritual effort for once in my life, or give it up and seek happiness as an ordinary man.

But even as I thought things through during those weeks, there was never any doubt which drive was the strongest. I'd been searching too long to give it up. And yet at the same time I realized how weak and half-hearted my spiritual efforts had been. I had pursued very little on my own. All I'd really ever done was put myself in proximity to Rose and hope he'd do it for me.

One thing was for sure, however. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that I had become too entangled in my career, too identified with my role as a lawyer. Instead of a seeker who had started a law practice as the next step on the spiritual path, I had become a lawyer, a lawyer who used his profession as an excuse to keep from taking any more spiritual steps. In those weeks after the Intensive this became the focus of my thoughts, and in the end, I decided to take a sabbatical from the law practice.

I brought up the subject with my partners, Lou and Jon, and we discussed an arrangement where each of us could take a yearís sabbatical. The more we discussed it the more I felt that a year away from the office could be my salvation. I let the idea percolate for a few days then decided to talk to Rose about it.

The kitchen was empty when I got home that evening but I could hear Rose moving about in his bedroom as I passed through the hall. I went upstairs, quickly changed clothes, and returned to the kitchen. Rose was just sitting down to read the Wheeling newspaper. We exchanged greetings then he began looking around for his glasses. I decided to get right to the point before he got too far into the paper.

"You know, Mister Rose, I've been thinking a lot about how to get my head back into The Work."

He looked me over briefly. "I applaud the effort," he said, then patted some papers on the table and got lucky--his glasses were under one of them. He put them on and began reading the obituaries. I waited for him to finish before going on.

"I think I'm going to take a year off from the practice. We've been talking about it at the office, and I think it's what I need to get back on track."

As I spoke he turned to the supermarket ads and began checking prices. After a minute or so he looked up again. "Everybody's soaking the working man," he said. "It's open season on the little guy." Then he put the newspaper down and took off his glasses.

"A year off, huh?" he said, looking off to another part of the room. "I don't know. A person has to do whatever he thinks is right. But I wouldn't advise running away from your responsibilities."

"It wouldn't be running away, Mister Rose. My partners will keep the practice going, and I'll be back in a year. I really think I've forgotten what I came here for. I'm just a money machine. I want to get back in touch with some higher purpose before it's too late."

Rose glanced over at me briefly then looked away again. "Well, I don't pretend to know people's destinies. Maybe a new career will do you some good."

"It's not a new career, Mister Rose. I just need some time off. I want to make a real effort on the path. I want to..."

"Sometimes it's not so much what you do, that's important. But whether or not you know why you're doing it."

"I know why. I've been thinking about it for weeks."

"That doesn't mean you know anything," he said.

"I just really think this is what I need right now."

Rose smiled. "Well, things have a way of working out. That much is true." I let it drop. It was like we were having separate conversations. I told myself that his reaction was merely the result of my failure to communicate my intentions properly, not that my intentions were flawed and he saw through them. I felt sure that once he saw my sincerity he would understand and support my effort.

The next day I worked out the details of a revolving sabbatical with Lou and Jon. Each of us would get a year off after seven years in the practice. I had six years in, and would spend the next year disengaging myself from the caseload before I left. We were all very enthusiastic. It wouldn't be much fun for the two lawyers left behind, but the opportunity for a year off made it worth the price.

Once we made the decision to go ahead with sabbaticals things seemed to fall into place. We hired a fourth lawyer to help Lou and Jon while I was gone. Several of my most troublesome cases were suddenly resolved out of court. And after two years of looking for a bigger office, a perfect place suddenly fell into our laps at a great price. I interpreted these things as signs that I had made the right decision. The only problem was I had no idea what to do with my year off. I wanted to do work for the group, but I didn't know what to do or where to begin.

I had discussed my problem with Rose several times, or at least tried to. In the past he had always chided people in the group for not doing enough, for not being willing to take on a group project. But now that I had committed myself to a year off to do group work he seemed unenthusiastic about working with me, or even suggesting things I could do on my own. Over the years I'd heard him itemize countless ways to expand the group-- some practical, others requiring a bit more faith. The ones that appealed to me most, of course, were those in which I could picture myself on the road with Rose, working shoulder to shoulder, putting on lectures or Chautauquas. I even presented him with a few formal proposals of this type, but each time he became uncharacteristically subdued, and if I pushed it, downright negative. I was slow to admit it, but it became obvious that Rose did not want to tie his future to mine. I stopped making proposals.

A month or so later as we drove back to Benwood from the July TAT meeting he made it official, telling me I should go ahead and plan for my year off without him. I told him I already had. I told him I wanted to do something for the group, and joked that if I wasn't going to be someone he could push over the brink into the Absolute, then maybe I could at least bring him some other candidates. What I didn't say, but felt, was that I had a deep need to prove myself to him. I wanted him to praise me, to respect me. I wanted him to like me.

Wrapping up my involvement in the practice turned out to be almost as much work as starting it. I pushed all my cases as far along as I could, and those that couldn't be wrapped up before the end of the year had to be explained to one of my partners. I was under a lot of pressure at work and trying to figure out what to do with my year off at the same time was too much for me to handle. I put off any serious planning until January when I was going out to the farm for a month of isolation in my cabin. Surely then, in the quiet of the woods, I would come up with something.

But procrastination and indecision did not sit well with Rose. When he asked about my plans Iíd try to float a half-baked idea by him, but it never worked. Heíd immediately criticize my sloppy thinking and launch into stories of other group members who had "charged out half-cocked" and ended up doing the group more harm than good.

"I'd rather have nothing done than give people the wrong impression," he reminded me one night.

His attitude depressed me and increased the pressure I was feeling, making it even more difficult to think clearly about my plans. As usual, when I was having difficulties with Rose, my solution was to leave the house earlier and come home later, hoping to avoid him as much as possible. Someone in the group once joked that this was the standard path for a Rose student. First you make a commitment to work with him, then you start hiding from him.

During this time I did come home early a few evenings, and one of them turned into a real barn-burner of confrontation. It started routinely, with Rose complaining about someone clogging up the sink with food scraps again. But it took off from there, as he then launched into a strident litany of offenses that blew right through the eleven o'clock news.

He didn't mention anyone by name. He didn't need to. When he talked about the hundreds of books he was stuck with because the book salesmen had failed to keep their commitments, Craig's vacuous smile disappeared. When he spoke of the people who had grown weary of the search and were now projecting all their spiritual ambitions on a hunk of protoplasm of the opposite sex, Al's round face turned red. Rose's diatribe against women whose biological clocks launched them out the door once a month to find someone to father their babies made Carrie cry. And when he listed all the projects others had started and he had to finish, including the Chautauquas, I tried to assume my stone-faced courtroom demeanor, but my temples were pounding.

Maybe he was tired and overworked. Maybe we were just hopeless morons. Maybe he was fulfilling his role as teacher, lighting a fire under each of us to shake us out of our lethargy. Maybe all of the above. Rose was both a difficult personality and an enlightened spiritual teacher--and he didn't hold up a sign telling you which one happened to be speaking at that moment. His power lay in his unpredictability, and you discarded anything he said at your own spiritual, or at the very least, psychological risk.

His final comments that night were the most painful.

"I don't mind dying for you people," he said quietly. "I just don't want to put up with too much deception."

That night in bed I thought of death. For Rose, death was the bottom line of every action. His comment that evening about dying for us was made casually, and yet anyone who knew Richard Rose knew that he meant exactly that--that he was willing to die at any moment for someone else as long as it was in accordance with his sense of purpose, or "excuse for living," as he often called it.

As a young man Rose's obsession was to know with certainty where he would go after death, and his philosophy is geared to allowing others to answer that question for themselves. In Rose's eyes, the whole premise for spiritual work rests on this point: you are going to die, you don't know what happens next, and your actions in life will likely determine your status after death.

As I lay there that night words I'd heard from Rose over the years passed through my thoughts with full sound and inflection, as if he were speaking into my ear.

"If I thought everyone went to the same place, there'd be no point in me talking."

"Man isn't born with a soul, he has to create one."

"You're not going to go anywhere that you haven't been vaccinated for beforehand."

The next morning I got up early and dressed quickly. I hoped to get out of the house before Rose woke up. I tiptoed down the stairs and was relieved to see the hallway quiet and dark. Rose was probably fatigued from his expenditure of energy the night before, and I figured he had slept in. I walked softly past his bedroom and slowly opened the creaky door to the kitchen. There was Rose, barely visible in the dimness, leaning against the sink.

The gray light from the kitchen window did not reach his corner of the room. His "Good morning" came out of the shadows, in the hoarse voice that hung with him each morning until he was able to loosen the chronic bronchitis in his chest. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I could see a softened, almost smiling expression on his round face.

"Good morning," I said, leaning against the stove. A quiet tranquillity filled the room and I no longer felt in a hurry to go anywhere.

"Iíve been thinking about your vacation," he said.

"Sabbatical," I corrected.

"If you donít know what youíre doing--if you donít have a vector--nature provides one for you. And it may not be in your best interest."

"Iím working on my plans," I said.

"My father used to say that the darker the black paint on the back of the mirror, the brighter the mirror's reflection." He paused to let the image sink in.

"That's the way it is with people in the group. A person conserves his energy for awhile, keeps himself clean and tries to rise a step above the manure pile. He builds up a quantum. But what happens? The king falls off of his throne. He meets a woman who's like the black paint on the mirror. He projects all his desires on this woman, who is doing nothing more than just reflecting back what the man wants to see."

"Mister Rose, Iím not heading out to find a woman. I just want to do some work for the group."

Rose smiled. "I was in the seminary for five years. Left when I was seventeen. That's when my real education began. Not long after, I tried to commit suicide. Hell, I did commit suicide, but I pulled out of it."

I sat down at the table.

"It was over a girl. She was a beautiful little thing with the sweetest smile and most beautiful voice I'd ever heard. I thought she was an angel. I wrote her poetry and treated her like fine china. I found out later she was the town whore. Everybody in Benwood had taken a crack at her but me. And when I discovered what a fool I'd been--projecting virtue and innocence and God knows what else onto her--it threw me into complete despair. I figured that if I could be so completely off base about something as basic as human nature, then what chance did I have of finding out anything about the really important things in life?

"To me, the thought of spending my whole life in ignorance was intolerable. I didn't want to live if I was going to be snowed by one thing after another, without any chance of ever knowing the real score. And since I was a Catholic and knew I was going to heaven, I figured the best thing to do was to get the hell out of here and move on to some place a little less abominable. I knew where my parents kept the rat poison, so I got it and drank it--the whole bottle."

He paused a moment to take a sip of tea.

"Strychnine's a rough way to go, believe me. The convulsions jerked my feet to the back of my head. And my teeth were locked tight--I'd have gnawed the doctor's fingers off if he'd tried to pull my jaws apart. That's where my mother took me, to this old doctor's office down the street. When the doctor saw how much I drank he said, 'Son, you've done a damn good job of it.'" Rose drawled the words out slowly, just as the doctor might have done.

"I heard him tell my mother I'd taken enough poison to kill ten men. At this point my sight was gone. Hearing was the only sense I had left, so I was just laying there waiting for the bugles to blow and the angels to come and carry me off to heaven. That's the way it's supposed to happen in the perfect religion of the most perfect person in the world--my mother.

"I kept waiting, but no one came. The convulsions are banging me up and down on the doctor's steel table and my teeth are grinding like sandpaper. There's no angels, no chariots. I'm just dying hard. And then I had a vision."

He turned his head to look right at me.

"I'm not talking about some fuzzy, dream-like vision. No, I saw everything very clearly, as clearly as I can see you right now. And what I saw was me, Richard Rose at seventeen, dead, laid out in a casket under ground. I was looking straight at him, as if someone had cut through the earth and the side of the coffin, to give me a cross-section view of the whole scene.

"And while I'm lying there on the doctor's table, somehow at the same time I'm also watching myself in the grave. And time is still passing on both fronts, because the next thing that happens in the vision is that Richard Rose in the coffin starts to rot.

"Since I'm seeing myself from the side, what's closest is my right arm."

Rose reached over with his left hand, grabbed his right shoulder, and slowly moved his hand down the length of his arm. "And that arm just rotted and withered away, right before my eyes."

"What did you do?"

"I did what I had to. I fought my way back. The reason I took the poison was that I didn't want to go on living in ignorance. But the vision made it clear that I couldn't expect to learn anything in death. Like Christ said, 'The dead know nothing.' So I figured I'd better get to work and find some answers while I was still alive."

He finished his tea in a long drink then put the cup in the sink and stared straight at me again.

"If a person can't take the tension and wants to throw in the towel on the search, I certainly won't stand in his way. But be careful. If you're going to surrender to illusion, at least make it an attractive illusion."

"Mister Rose," I said, somewhat exasperated, "I have no intention of surrendering to an illusion of any kind."

He softened a little. "No one ever intends to," he said.

Rose was clearly concerned about what I had in mind for my sabbatical, and because I had no plans he apparently assumed I was headed out to find a woman--any woman. It was true that I sometimes daydreamed about what a "normal" life would be like, but I fully intended--at least consciously--to use my year off to do group work and nothing else. But as the end of the year approached I still did not know what I was going to do with my time. Rose brought the subject up frequently and all I could do was tell him that I was going to figure it out during my month of isolation in January. As the pressure built I looked forward to that isolation as if it were the magical cure for all my problems.

On Christmas day Rose hosted a big dinner out at the farm, as was his custom. On these occasions he laid aside all vestiges of his teacher persona and became the consummate host. We were honored guests at his table and all else was forgotten. That year, when the evening came to an end I drove him back into town. In the car he became the teacher again and immediately resumed taking me to task for my lack of planning for the upcoming year. In the wake of such an enjoyable day I was caught completely off guard.

I had recently been toying with the idea of writing his biography, even though I'd never written anything more than a letter in my life. In desperation I tossed this idea out to him. He immediately dismissed it, telling me flatly that I wasn't capable of it, and that any attempts to do so would be a complete waste of time. I sulked for the rest of the ride and prayed that during my upcoming isolation I would somehow come up with an idea that pleased both him and me.

On December thirty-first they had a little going away party for me at the office, then I stopped off in Benwood to pick up my things before heading out to the farm to begin my isolation. Rose was getting ready for the New Years Eve party he always threw at the farm, which over the years had grown into a sort of informal TAT meeting. The kitchen table was covered with food he was going to take out there.

"Coming to the party tonight?" he said.

"No, I'm starting isolation right away."

"Oh, yeah. Have you come up with any plans for your vacation yet?

My jaw tightened. "No, but I've got a few ideas I hope to refine while I'm out there."

He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. "You know, I was thinking about your vacation the other day and I might have an idea for you."

I grabbed a chair. He began explaining his proposal and I nodded my head in disbelief. It was the plan of my dreams: Mister Rose and me, side by side, traveling the country, putting on lectures and hypnosis demonstrations.

"Why don't you give it some thought while you're loafing out there and see if you can come up with something." I promised I would, and left Benwood a confused, but very happy man.

I spent New Year's Eve joyfully hauling supplies out to my cabin. Each time I returned to my car for more gear I could hear Rose and thirty of his closest friends and students laughing as they drank wine, played euchre, and talked philosophy in the farmhouse. Even though it was cold and the mud sucked at my boots with every step, I wouldn't have traded places with anyone in the house. I had a whole month ahead to work up a plan based on Rose's ideas, and the rest of the year to carry it out with him.

It was difficult settling into the solitude at first. My body and mind were still whirling at the pace of the outside world. But after a few days I found some measure of peace in my cabin. Gradually, I lost interest in the Steelers and the stock market, and settled into a comfortable routine of meditation, exercise, and writing my "proposal" to Rose.

I worked with one of Rose's common complaints in mind: that everyone in the group viewed ladder work as a hobby, volunteer work performed in your spare time.

"If you want to succeed on the ladder, you have to work like it was your livelihood and you had ten starving kids to feed at home," he advised us.

I was determined that my proposal would not fall into the hobby category. I put together budgets, timetables, publicity packages, even charted out an itinerary on a map. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a venture that would dwarf even the Chautauquas, I placed my book-size proposal into a large brown envelope and deposited it in the farmhouse mailbox, addressed to Rose. That done, I began to settle into the quiet isolation I'd come for.

Several others were also squirreled away in their cabins, and though we were each alone, I felt joined to them somehow in our mutual solitary efforts. Occasionally we'd pass in the woods, sometimes pretending not to see each other, other times breaking out in laughter.

A bulletin board and calendar had been placed by the bunkhouse. Each day we signed in to let the others know we were okay. The board also served as a message center, and every morning I checked for some word from Rose about my proposal. After a week of not hearing from him I concluded he must be waiting for my return so that we could fine tune the plan in person. Then one snowy morning I saw a folded piece of paper tacked to the message board with my name written on it in an unmistakable hand.

Somehow I knew it was trouble. An overpowering uneasiness hit me and I actually felt sick to my stomach. I put the note in my pocket without reading it and went back to my cabin. There, alone at my desk, I unfolded the paper as if it contained my obituary. It was written in large, almost angry, block letters. Blood pounded in my ears as I read.

GOT YOUR NOTE. DON'T EXPECT ME TO ADJUST MY DIRECTION SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU HAD NO IDEA WHAT YOU WERE GOING TO DO ONCE YOU TOOK THE YEAR OFF. YOU TREAT THE WORK LIKE YOU DO YOUR CASES. BUT THE TRUTH CANNOT BE CAPTURED WITH A FLICK OF THE WRIST. IF YOU WISH TO PLAY GAMES WITH YOUR LIFE, NO ONE HERE WILL TRY TO STOP YOU. BUT DO NOT TIE UP THE VECTORS OF THOSE WHO ARE SERIOUS. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT MAN'S QUEST TO BECOME A SOUL.

R.

Everything I thought I'd accumulated in preparation for the sabbatical--the sense of power, the peace of mind, the detached optimism--all disappeared in a flash. I was devastated. How could he do this to me? Didn't he realize the effect this letter would have on someone shut away in a cabin? Hadn't I had taken the year off to do his work? Wasn't it his idea that we go out on the road together?

An angry debate raged in my head for days afterwards, but it was frustrating and futile. There was no one to argue with. And even if there was, and even if I won--if I was somehow proven right, and Rose proven wrong--what good would it do? The situation would not change. No matter how I looked at it an empty year still lay ahead, with nothing to do and no one to do it with. The days and nights grew endlessly unpleasant. There was no running away, physically or mentally. I re-read Rose's letter dozens of times, trying unsuccessfully to see where I had gone so wrong.

I needed help. Years before I'd bought a copy of the I Ching, just a few days after Rose's copy had comforted me with words about "a strong and good friend." Now, I turned to it again. I tossed the coins, then looked up the corresponding hexagram.

The image was "Fire on the Mountain," and the judgment, "The Wanderer." The commentary spoke of a fire that has burned up all the grass on a mountain, and must either jump to another mountain or burn itself out. In material life, it was explained, an individual who achieves all he can in a particular field stagnates if he refuses to move on.

I closed the book and looked out the window at the icy woods. If the I Ching was advising the bird to leave the nest, I figured it might as well fly south for the winter. I decided to go to Florida because I had friends there and I liked the beach.

But there was still the problem of what to do. I had to think of some way to make my trip relevant to the group. What could I do? Start a group? Give lectures? I remembered that I'd occasionally receive circulars advertising stress management programs in my office mail. It occurred to me I might be in a position to do something like that myself. I had been teaching yoga off and on at the Wheeling YMCA for a couple years, and I could certainly adapt some of Rose's philosophy to that theme. I became excited again and threw myself into the task of putting together a stress management program I could offer in Florida. By the end of the month I had what I thought was a viable plan.

I returned to Benwood with apprehension. I worried that Rose might jump on me about my proposal again, or worse, criticize my new idea. But when I opened the kitchen door and saw him at the table all I felt was the familiar warmth of his presence. He was typing on his ancient iron Underwood and wearing a rather silly-looking hat with ear flaps.

At the sound of the door he looked up and smiled at my disheveled appearance. "Better shave that beard before you go to court or they'll hang you for a rabbi."

"Luckily I'm not going back to court." It was the first time I heard my voice in a month. It sounded like someone else's.

"Oh yeah, that's right, you're taking some time off."

I wondered if he really could have forgotten my plans, considering the note he'd sent me a couple weeks before. No matter, though. We talked like old friends. He brought me up to date on all I'd missed, and I told him about my experiences in the woods. The evening passed without mention of his letter or my new plans, which was fine with me.

The next morning we got down to business. I thanked him for his letter, and acknowledged that I needed tough medicine to finally get serious about the year ahead.

"In spiritual matters, sometimes you have to attack people to help them," he said. Then he asked me about my plans. He nodded when I mentioned Florida, and of trying to get on with a college in some sort of teaching capacity. He was not as receptive to my subject matter.

"I don't think 'stress' is going to attract the kind of people you're looking for. You're better off talking about 'success.'"

I wasn't about to start all over again, and when he saw that I was set on my approach, he let the matter drop.

I spent the next two weeks preparing for the trip, digging up the latest research on stress at the library, putting together a brochure, lining up a place to stay in Florida. When it looked as if I was as prepared as I was going to get, I packed up my car, made a few last minute phone calls, and went to bed with plans to leave at sunrise. The next morning Rose was waiting for me when I came down to the kitchen.

"Headin' out, are you?" he asked in a friendly West Virginia drawl.

"Yeah, I wanted to get an early start."

"Which way you taking?"

I started to verbally describe my route. Rose took a map from the shelf and spread it on the table. He studied with interest the route I had planned, then compared it to the one he'd taken twenty-five years ago in a borrowed Cadillac. I listened to his story of the trip and we laughed. That led to a few more stories, some old, some new, until finally he said, "Hell, I better let you go."

We walked over towards the door together.

"You know, it's good for you to leave," he said. "You get so close to people sometimes you forget who they are."

I fumbled nervously with the things I was carrying. "Thanks for all your help," I said.

He extended his hand to me for only the second time since I'd known him. The other was when Iíd first entered his kitchen a decade before.

"I wish I could do more," he said.

RichardRose.org Home    |    Table of Contents    |    Next Chapter