The Donovan concert was held in the mysteriously titled Men’s Dome on Sunday night, free to the public. My earnest chauffeur drove me around a low hill and through gold-tipped gates to the edge of a large round building. Fairfield residents walked towards the Dome laughing and talking, their Birkenstocks and linen outfits somehow color-coordinated with the landscape. The forceful presence of TM transformed the familiar Midwestern environment – rolling fields, thick stands of trees in purple dusk – into a sort of spiritual moonscape. Inside the Dome, posters praised the Maharishi and announced community events. Money was being raised to renovate the building. I removed my shoes and placed them on a rack that held hundreds of other pairs and padded into the sanctuary.
The interior of the Dome was wood; bright orange light from the saffron-curtained windows that ringed the room framed the silhouettes of the audience. I sat on the floor of interlocking foam mattresses and saw that nearly every other attendant had brought a portable chair-back, of the sort parents sometimes put on the floor for children to sit on. After a few minutes, I understood why: the cushy floor made it impossible not to slouch painfully, and lying down would eliminate my view of the stage. An enormous American flag hung from the ceiling directly above my head. On the stage stood a large icon of the Maharishi garlanded with flowers.
The woman next to me wore a flower-print prairie dress and a long brown ponytail. “Don’t you have a chair?” she asked me. I shook my head forlornly. “Oh, don’t worry – they’re for everybody,” she said, and walked off, returning with a chair-back. Somewhat more comfortably seated, I peered around at the crowd. The average age was fifty – a few people had brought young children, but nearly everyone in the Dome looked old enough to have enjoyed Donovan’s music during its heyday. The lights dimmed, and Bobby Roth came onstage, singing praises to Lynch, Donovan, MUM, and hey, all of us, too. Lynch walked on, followed by Donovan. MUM presented an award to Lynch for, well – the exact wording escapes me, but it was something along the lines of “For promoting peace and wellness through meditation in education.” Two standing ovations followed. Lynch and Donovan were photographed with a very large framed certificate. Glancing around, I recalled the numerous Fairfield residents I had encountered throughout the weekend who had had very little idea of who Lynch was, people who had never seen any of his movies but came anyway. The conference was about evenly split between Lynch enthusiasts and meditation enthusiasts, but the crowd in the Dome seemed to appreciate the director simply because he was a vocal proponent of TM.
Bobby Roth introduced one of the head educators from the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. This man had worked in “a public school on the East Coast that was widely considered the worst high school in America. There were security guards posted every 50 feet in the hallway, and stabbings and beatings regularly took place at the school. The graduation rate was very low. And we come in saying ‘life is bliss.’
“At first the principal arranged our meditation sessions so that students had to miss study halls if they wanted to learn TM. There was one boy who had been in over one hundred and fifty fights, and he was widely considered one of the most violent people in the school. After a few sessions with us, he said: ‘I get angry, but my body won’t let me fight.’ Another boy, considered the most dangerous gang member at the high school, kept his head down at the end of a session. This was in a lecture hall, so after we called his name a few times, we climbed up and touched him on the shoulder. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. ‘I’ve never felt happiness before,’ he told us. A gang tried to dissuade students from attending our sessions, saying that it was a form of White mind control. But the students resisted and risked bodily harm to come. Another boy was homeless. He collected cans and spent the deposits on clothes from the Salvation Army. His family had just fallen apart. But he was a talented artist, and always wanted to pursue his talent. He got involved with us, and meditation seemed to work for him. He won first-place in a state competition for talented young artists, and he’s now attending school on a full scholarship.
“At the end of the year the principal of the school called us into his office and put the master schedule for the next semester in front of us. ‘We want you to put meditation on the schedule first,’ the principal said. ‘We’re making it mandatory for all students.’”
It was the second time I had heard this success story, and the second time it choked me up (It would probably behoove the reader to know that I am an unreliable narrator in that I am extremely susceptible to sentimental stories of unlikely success, in every category from education to athletics). It had elements that made me suspicious – why, for example, was each success story about a boy who had evidently been voted “worst” by a shadowy faculty committee? But I innately trusted the speaker, probably because he was a more realistic beefy Midwestern type, a guy my dad might know, than the ethereal clerks of the MUM bureaucracy I had been exposed to thus far.
Transcendental meditation has elements that might be generously described as eccentric and more accurately called cultish: a professed belief in something called “yogic flying” (about which Bobby Roth did at one point joke, saying “I mean, if you really want to start thinking I’m weird…”) and the reverence for the Maharishi himself. During the weekend I encountered Helena and Ronald Olson’s His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: A Living Saint for the New Millennium : Stories of His First Visit to the USA, a memoir by the Southern California couple who housed the Maharishi on his first trip to America. The Maharishi turned the Olsons’ lives upside down, bringing in his own laundress, overstaying his welcome and hosting impromptu gatherings that lasted long into the night, and the American family responded by building an addition onto their house especially for him. The fervent devotion to a living man was too Messianic for my taste. But after two days of Lynch Weekend, I was completely onboard with the integration meditation into education. I was neither an over- nor underachiever in my primary and secondary school days, and yet I would still sometimes fall into paroxysms of guilt and worry over the mountains of work I wasn’t doing. Mightn’t a twice-daily calm down soothe so many of the problems rampant in American schools, administering a chill pill with no known side effects?
Donovan played the same setlist as the night before. Around me, people leaned closer together, closed their eyes and smiled, leapt to their feet for multiple ovations. Lynch was again seated next to the mysterious Emily, of whom I could see only a full head of dark hair. At the end of the evening, the audience walked out calmly. I felt the dangerous pull of fandom. Lynch was still in the Dome, presumably waiting to leave. I knew I shouldn’t wait. I wanted to wait. Admirers in the same position fanned out around me like trees on a barren stretch of prairie, leaning towards the director as he crossed to the side of the room, Emily in tow. She departed his side and gathered a chair. “Come on,” I heard her tell him. “Sit down.” Collectively, we began to gather forward in hope: he was sitting still. But as soon as we had the thought, Lynch and his lady were up and out the door, done with us.
The ride I was supposed to get from one of the men who had driven me to and from my hotel before failed to materialize. I wandered around the rapidly emptying parking lot, wondering how I would get back to my room. It was a quiet and safe night. I bumped into a street sign bearing my mother's maiden name. If I had to hitchhike, Fairfield was the best place to do it.