Growing Up in Utopia

When your family and friends want to save the world by meditating, you can sometimes feel out of place in small-town Iowa

I learned how to fly when I was 17.

I’m not talking about a plane, and this isn’t some euphemism. “Yogic flying,” which is basically meditation at the black-belt level, offers the potential of human levitation — although in actuality it looks more like energetic, if not rather effortless, cross-legged hopping. Needless to say, most kids who grow up in the small-town Midwest do not learn how to fly. But in my hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, much of the community is devoted to creating heaven on Earth through group meditation. In Fairfield, teenagers fly.

My parents, and my friends’ parents, were all caught up in the Transcendental Meditation movement — ex-hippies looking to settle down into a less drugged-out, more socially conservative, post-commune utopia. They came from the coasts, from Canada, from (in the case of my parents) Arizona, to start a university dedicated to consciousness-based education at the former site of Parsons College. The tract of mobile homes that eventually cropped up on the northwestern corner of the campus was named Utopia Park.

Growing up in a utopian community in Iowa means you don’t always come off like an Iowan. After spending my high school and college years dying to get away, and finally escaping to California, I’ve finally embraced my Midwestern identity: I’m uncomfortable on the phone, hate being late, loathe being an imposition, and get positively giddy when a rare clap of thunder sounds during an L.A. rainstorm. But on my first trip back in 5 years, I found myself grasping at belonging.

It showed. “Where are you all from anyways?” a woman asked me in a restaurant, as she and her friends zipped coats and pulled on gloves. “Because you clearly aren’t from around here.”

My then-girlfriend (now fiancée), our 9-month old daughter, my sister, three childhood friends and I were packed in around a four-top at Butch’s River Rock Café. (We’re here to feed ya, not fatt’n ya up, says a cartoon catfish on the sign outside.) The table was scattered with scraps of pork tenderloin sandwich, baskets of sliced fried meat and steak fries smothered in cheese, and just the sugar-glaze residue of a burger served on a donut bun. We were visiting our hometown for the holidays, and had driven on snow-blown roads to Oakland Mills, Iowa, to start 2014 with a resolution-shattering New Year’s Day breakfast. If it weren’t for the steady fall of small, dry snowflakes, the trip would have taken 20 minutes. We may have been wearing the wool coats and scarves of our adopted homes in Chicago, Brooklyn, London, and Los Angeles, rather than the duck canvas and tree-patterned hunting camo favored by the other diners, but we were in our own backyard. Except for my girlfriend and daughter, we had all spent the formative years of our lives a short drive down Highway 34.

I explained that we were all visiting for the holidays, “but we’re originally from Fairfield.”

“Oh,” she responded as her friends walked outside. She paused for a beat before adding, “I guess you guys just didn’t give off that Fairfield vibe.”

This felt like both a failure and a triumph. It had taken me years to shed “that Fairfield vibe” — but without it, where was I from? I’d never really fit in as an Iowan, only as someone who meditated. No wonder that 20 minutes from my hometown, I was being treated like an outsider.

The Fairfield vibe is nothing like the Iowa vibe. You could tell from the sandwich I’d been eating.

Butch’s is home to what the Iowa Pork Producers Association named the best breaded-pork tenderloin in the state. A stark reminder of our German immigrant roots, this impossible sandwich, which is served on a hamburger bun, features a schnitzel-like expanse of fried meat that reaches beyond the circumference of the bread by a substantial distance. It is quintessentially Iowan — like cheese curds in Wisconsin or queso in Texas. At Butch’s, the meat was cantilevered out a good three inches on either side, which makes eating the sandwich something of a tactical challenge.

(Photo: Willy Blackmore)

That morning, at 29 years old, I had eaten my first pork tenderloin sandwich. As a native Iowan, I should consider this sandwich something of a birthright, but in all my childhood and adolescence I’d never even tried one. If Iowa is a pork tenderloin sandwich, Fairfield is Boca burgers. If Iowa is corn and soybeans, hog confinements, and sandwiches at Butch’s, Fairfield is farmers markets, new age-y vegetarianism, and maybe some wild-caught salmon.

Transcendental Meditation is still around — you’ve seen bits and pieces of it before. David Lynch is a well-known practitioner, and often describes in interviews how he meditates for 20 minutes a day. Oprah, Jim Carrey, Russell Simmons, Deepak Chopra, Doug Henning — they’ve all learned Transcendental Meditation at one point or another. Jon Densmore and Robby Kreiger first met Ray Manzarek at a lecture on TM at UCLA in 1965. Lena Dunham learned how to meditate when she was 9 years old.

(Photo: Paul Saltzman/Creative Commons)

Perhaps the most culturally weighty TM practitioners were the Beatles. There’s a photo of them in 1968, wearing white robes and marigold garlands in Rishikesh, sitting cross-legged on a red-draped platform with a small, smiling Indian man, his beard only just beginning to turn grey. There’s John Lennon signing jai guru devaaaaa in “Across the Universe,” drawing out what should be a silent a. It’s a phrase I first learned as a sort of formal, respectful salutation, like a Hindu mystic equivalent of “may god be with you.” It means “all glory to Guru Dev.” Guru Dev was the man who taught the Beatles’ yogi, Maharishi, everything that he taught John and Paul and George and Ringo, and my parents and the parents of so many of my friends.

Maharishi was still relatively young then, back in 1968; in later years his beard and hair would go shocking white, his small bald patch spreading into a shiny, hairless dome . But he retained that same boyish smile, and in our house and my friends’ houses there was at least one picture of Maharishi set out somewhere, like a photo of the Pope or Kennedy or Reagan. When my fiancée Jennifer first came over to my parents’ house, before I had told her much of anything about how I grew up, she pointed to one such photo, set alongside other snapshots of my sister and I and other family members. “Is that your grandpa?” she asked.

I got my first mantra when I was five in a ceremony called puja, replete with incense and flower garlands and a rather beautiful chant sung in Sanskrit. For children, the mantra is called a Word of Wisdom. After being initiated, as it was called, we would do our Word of Wisdom for at the beginning of class everyday, spending a few minutes in eyes-open “walking meditation.” We’d silently mill around the classroom in our grey corduroys, white Oxford shirts, and red clip-on ties, each repeating our own mantra in our head as we played with cards or blocks or the much-coveted set of dominoes. This was our first step toward enlightenment. If you were lucky enough to get the dominoes and happened to build a particularly spectacular arrangement, you waited until Word of Wisdom was over, and everyone could marvel at what you built and subsequently destroyed.

Later came big-kid meditating, the seated eyes-closed kind, at age 10. Another initiation, a new mantra, and new routine that slowly worked its way up from 10 minutes to 20 minutes of meditating, twice a day. We were living our lives like David Lynch, minus the cigarettes and coffee.

The TM initiations weren’t my only coming-of-age moments. There were others: my first skateboard, my first Wu-Tang-heavy shipment of CDs from BMG. But even with these developments, it was clear that my friends and I were different. Even when we weren’t meditating, we could never have fit in with the corn-fed bros from the public high school who drove trucks and played football; they deemed us “skater fags” and occasionally threatened to fight us. It was abundantly clear that not everyone in town lived the way we did — that the parents of the kids on my Little League team didn’t head for the Golden Dome at 5:00 most evenings to practice yogic flying.

Junior, Bobby-Jo Davis, Larry Money, anyone in town named Trent — they were all Townies, children of people who had lived here for generations. They called us Roos, short for Guru, Sanskrit for master — goo-roo, when said with the kind of southeastern Iowa accent that slips an “r” in the midst of “wash.” It’s an honorific, but it turned into a slur soon after our parents rolled into this sleepy Iowa town in the late 1970s. The communities were far from integrated — and the divide, while slowly eroding and nearly nonexistent today, still existed when I was coming of age in the ‘90s.

That might have had something to do with those golden domes and the yogic flying. The group that practiced daily at the domes could, at times, number in the thousands — thousands of adults hopping around in the lotus position. This might be the Xenu moment of TM, the secret weirdness at its heart, if it weren’t all so visible — the domes, at least, are impossible to miss. They’re the defining feature of the campus at the Maharishi University of Management — the school, then called Maharishi International University, that my parents and my friends’ parents moved to Iowa to start. Ringed with tinted, arched windows, the yellow roofs of the domes — one for men, one for women — curve up against the Iowa sky. Inside, a honeycomb of wood beams cut a hexagon pattern across the sloped ceiling, vaulted heights arching over the congregation gathered below.

Going to the dome was part of my attendance for school, even on weekends. Rather than having to be home by any certain hour on Friday or Saturday night, I was kept in check by a bell that rang shortly after 7:00 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday morning, marking the beginning of meditation. Weekends meant clichéd Midwestern youth shenanigans by night — keggers in fields, making out in cars, gleeful vandalism — and, in the mornings, drowsing through a collective attempt to create heaven on Earth.

Saving the world was very much the goal. Meditating on your own is good for your own consciousness, but collectively, we were taught, the impact was reflected outward exponentially. Transcending on your own could bring about enlightenment; in a large enough group, it could bring about heaven on Earth. This was called the Maharishi Effect: If the square root of 1 percent the world’s population meditated together in groups, twice daily, we’d have world peace.

Needless to say, this didn’t work, or anyway it hasn’t worked yet. But my parents and their cohort did end up creating a community — not a global utopia, but Fairfield itself. The economic opportunities presented by companies the meditators started, along with the coffee shops and restaurants and arts events and other institutions that have cropped up over the years, have helped pull the Townies and Roos together in many ways.

Still, for many of my friends who have left, their relationship with home is a fraught one. Somewhere on the Internet there’s a listserv or private group blog called Cult Bros, where a group of Gen-Xers and Millennials who grew up in the Movement air their grievances. I’m not a Cult Bros member myself, but I can anticipate their conversations — they’d be familiar to anyone who grew up in a community defined by certain dogma, religious or otherwise. There’s the resentment of the years spent trying to be perfect little yogis, frustrations over growing up in what can be a very socially conservative environment, anger at the time and effort and money spent working toward the unattainable goal that is world peace with very little payoff. There’s questioning of the traditions we grew up with, the means to this impossible end — the pujas, the mantras, the jai Guru Devs, the Golden Domes, the yogic flying. Questioning all of the Hindu mythology that’s wrapped up this thing we were told was not a religion. Like anyone from anywhere, the Cult Bros are trying to come to terms with their home.

I didn’t mention any of this to the woman at Butch’s who asked where I was from. I didn’t tell her about what Fairfield meant to me or my Roo parents, or the Townies, or the Cult Bros. I was full of pork tenderloin sandwich and I wanted to feel like I was home.

What did we talk about instead? How did we bridge our cultural distance? For my part, I resorted to an old trick: Talk about the weather. Not the snow, but the summers of 1993, 2008, 2012 — years when the rains pushed rivers like the Skunk over their banks, flooding nearby farmland, houses, and businesses. For people whose livelihood sits on the banks of a river, or for those who make a living growing corn and soybeans, those years recall a litany of water-logged memories. Like the long droughts that are etched in the memories of Californians, the years of these floods are a mantra, telling other Iowans that what matters to them also matters to you.

My daughter continued to grin at just about anyone who caught her stare. Snow was falling harder now, the white frozen river only discernable from the white banks by virtue of elevation. Housed in an old railroad depot building, an assortment of antique teapots scattered on the shelves, a stone fireplace taking up one wall, Butch’s is the kind of place you’re aren’t in a rush to leave.