A spiritual quest

Howard Adelman was seeking enlightenment because it was time. It was the thing you did next. Higher education – check. Girlfriend who morphs into (mostly) tolerable life-partner – check. House in suburbs, picket fence, (mostly) decent job, pet – check, check, check, check. Except for the six months when Fiona thought he was fooling around with the veterinarian (he wasn’t), and the three weeks when Howard had wondered about her excessive interest in the furnace repairman (but he knew Fiona would never cheat on him), his life had proceeded remarkably conflict-free. Of course, even the minor setback of suspected infidelity was probably to be expected, but even when that was factored in the result was still a life that was right on track. In that case, disillusionment leading to midlife crisis should be right around the corner, and therefore required an attempt to “find meaning” and “make sense of it all.” And since Howard was not so inclined towards the school of midlife crisis that involved young girlfriends and fast sportscars (too messy and too expensive, both of them, and the truth was that he kind of liked having Fiona around. She was, well, comfortable and familiar, and she knew just how to find that place on his back that always knotted up). Enlightenment, then: that was the appropriate response, and so Howard set about taking it.


Howard’s wife did not want him to take yoga classes. It was not so much that Fiona distrusted him in a room full of flexible women (in fact she did not trust him, but they were trying to move past the whole suspicion issue now and just focus on the positive) – no, in fact her negative reaction to Howard’s Eastern exercise interest was born out of a more complex mix of emotion involving guilt about her own lack of physical activity, and a twinge of homophobia directed at men who took yoga classes.

Howard did not care.

He signed up for a Beginner Hatha yoga class at the Zen Cone, and proceeded to valiantly face his dog downwards. Enlightenment was surely imminent.

Later on, when bed-rest allowed him time to reflect, he decided he was grateful that his wife had insisted on accompanying him to his first class. No one else would have been able to decipher the spastic gestures to which he was reduced when the shooting pains in his back rendered him virtually incoherent, and he had to admit that Fiona dealt quite calmly with the situation, even considering the amount of screaming that had occurred when the paramedics had transferred him to the gurney. It had been unavoidable, the screaming, and his wife at least had seemed to accept that. Now, however, to cope with the stress involved in administering what felt like round-the-clock care to a back-spasmed husband on sick leave, Fiona insisted on attending yoga classes twice a week. Howard had acquiesced, and now used his newly solitary Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to move on to a more sedentary pursuit of spiritual nirvana.


Actual entry from Howard Adelman’s private journal – June 17th, 2006:
“I am writing in my journal. I am still writing in my journal. No enlightenment so far. Now I am writing about writing in my journal. Is this part of it, or something different? Shouldn’t more be happening by now?

Now I am going to stop keeping a stupid #$(%ing journal.”

Despite the fact that this was his only entry in the leather-bound vellum-paged diary that Fiona had bought – on his specifications – for this purpose, Howard kept his written thoughts under lock and key and safely squirreled away from Fiona’s curious eyes. It was private, after all. This was his quest for enlightenment, and even though he had been secretly reading her private diary for years, that was no reason to let Fiona have the satisfaction of reciprocation. Nor did he wish to somehow have his own journal-reading indiscretions exposed–at least not until he figured out why Channing Tatum was worthy of ten pages of fantasies involving furnace repair. Apparently his wife just used her journal to pine for unattainable famous people masquerading as servicemen, but Howard could not be bothered with such trivialities. He had important spiritual discoveries to make, and obviously his personal path to enlightenment lay elsewhere.


Since all that time spent writing down his thoughts had proven to be redundant and pointless, Howard decided to skip the writing altogether and just get on with the thinking. The lotus position was impossible due to the still-present back twinges, so Howard lay stiffly on the couch, fending off the cat’s chest-kneads and tail-end presentations, and instructed his mind to be quiet so that enlightenment could come right in.

Half an hour later he had come up with six ways in which Roberto Luongo was a better goalie than Martin Brodeur, guiltily aborted at least four fantasies involving Angelina Jolie and Barbara (the veterinarian), and had narrowly escaped becoming a hairball deposit site. There was no sign of enlightenment. Thinking that one more attempt would at least constitute the proverbial ‘college try,’ Howard took a deep breath, plumped up the cushions as much as he could without inducing a paroxysm, and struggled vehemently to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Promptly, he fell asleep.

When Fiona arrived home from her extended bikram yoga class, loaded down with aromatherapy samples and books with titles like The Artist’s Way and Diet for a New World, Howard had woken up and decided that meditation was entirely too taxing, both physically and mentally. There had to be an easier way for him to find the meaning of life and fill his supposed spiritual emptiness. Something that involved him just sitting and listening to someone who was already enlightened tell him exactly how to feel.


Despite his obviously Jewish surname, Howard had never actively practiced the religion of his birthright, and had been raised in a completely atheist household. The closest his parents had come to acknowledging their Jewish heritage was to eat bagels and frighten the children into believing that Santa would not come “because we’re not Christian.” With these kind of bewildering mixed messages infusing his childhood Howard understandably viewed religion as upsetting (as a boy he had always stayed awake tormented with worry on Christmas Eve night, and to this day found bagels indigestible), but nothing else had worked so far, and so many people took the religion route that it seemed there must be something to it. Therefore, Howard decided to go to church.

He took a long time deciding which church to attend (his personal enlightenment was important, after all, and he didn’t want it to be tainted by anyone’s hidden agenda – be it hypocritical fundamentalist preachers or altar-boy-molesting priests) but finally he settled on The People’s Church of Eternal Happiness, which sounded vague enough to be unthreatening, and was conveniently located near the vegan organic restaurant that Fiona insisted they patronize for Sunday brunch following the service.

On the next calendar Sunday, then, clad in business casual attire chosen specifically for its inobtrusive qualities, the Adelmans appeared on the doorstep of the People’s Church of Eternal Happiness. Howard and Fiona were ushered to their pew by a young gentleman who smiled so broadly that they were convinced of his membership in the congregation, and, once seated, they were inundated by the curious chitchat of various Happy People, only some of whom appeared to be Eternal.

Howard started to relax. All these people were enlightened! And obviously it was a blissful state, which surely permeated these peoples’ daily existence and somehow helped them just make sense of everything. Howard could not wait to be one of them; he began smiling – in both rehearsal and anticipation – and continued until Fiona gave him one of her looks. The choir had begun filing in anyway, so obviously the service was about to begin.

The first challenge of being an eternally happy person, Howard discovered, was the negotiation of church service procedure. There were times to sit, times to stand, times to repeat things that Howard did not know, various instances of singing (most involving endless repetitions of overhead-projectered choruses, accompanied by waving of arms heavenward) and the juggling of prayer request cards, songsheets, and Bibles. Oh, people were helpful, of course (part of the mandate of being eternally happy, Howard supposed), but even so he had not expected all these theatrics. Did enlightenment need a script? Why did it appear to be so structured and complicated? Things probably get easier as you go along, Howard consoled himself. Fiona, meanwhile, had stopped trying to keep up and was fanning herself with the largely uninformative church bulletin, in between surreptitious glances at her watch.

After dropping the Bible twice (was that bad luck?) and mixing up hymn verses at least once, Howard decided to join Fiona in seated abstention from the proceedings. His back was twinging with all this sitting and rising anyway, and surely the minister would start speaking soon and impart to Howard the words of wisdom he needed to become instantly enlightened.

The sermon, however, when it came, proved largely confusing. It was something about the ‘Great Commission,’ which to Howard sounded more like a real estate deal than the answer to life’s imponderables. Was this all this ‘Happiness’ just a front for shady property deals? Or some kind of cult with investment savvy? Howard had just begun sizing up his pewmates to determine the relative glassiness of their eyes when he noticed something that made him feel even more unsettled. Large plates of money were being passed around the congregation. At first Howard surmised that the Great Commission must have come in and now everyone got to share the wealth (and if so, he had definitely picked the right day to attend), but as he observed the passage of the plates he noticed they were in fact not emptying but filling up. People were digging into their wallets and…putting money in the plates! That settled it: this was definitely a cult. No one even seemed to question the rampant emptying of purses, and the overflowing tableware was smilingly passed to the next person, sometimes even with a “God bless you” tacked on for good measure. Howard watched in horror as the ritual approached his particular pew, and realized he would have to act fast. Grabbing Fiona’s arm, he leapt out of his seat and pulled her towards the door, not even caring that he was in jeopardy of triggering the worst back spasm yet.

In the foyer he saw something else that confirmed his suspicions. A couple of grey-haired Eternally Happy matrons were milling around long tables with Tupperware pitchers, pleasantly chatting as they filled many tiny glasses. With orange juice, the cult beverage of choice. Howard (and Fiona, although for her own reasons) could not get out of there fast enough.

And so, religion was added to the list of methods unsuitable for Howard Adelman’s mental and spiritual illumination. He wanted enlightenment, not brain-washing, and he wanted it to be simple – a sudden flash of light that marked his conversion from philistine to guru. Was that too much to ask? Did it all have to be so difficult and mysterious? Why wasn’t there a pill to take or an infomercial to watch, or something? Howard wanted three easy payments, and operators standing by – all this thinking about and “trying to find” himself was just too taxing, and was taking up all the time he wanted to spend just sitting around being enlightened. Because wasn’t that what it was all about?

Fiona, for her part, could not be bothered with this latest bout of Howard’s whining. They had just enough time for vegan brunch before she met up with the girls in her yoga class for a holistic cleansing seminar, so she couldn’t waste any time trying to fix her husband. Howard, for his part, decided to go home and watch TV and not think about enlightenment anymore that day.


Occasionally Howard thought back to the days when he tried in vain to channel his midlife crisis along a route of higher purpose, but entertaining those thoughts usually made him queasy, so he tried to shut them out altogether and go on watching reruns of Reno 911. Now that Fiona had left for 6 months to take an intensive course in ayurvedic medicine in India Howard had lots of time for not thinking, and he found he was quite good at it. He was an expert at not thinking about the state of his marriage, his job, his place in the world, or even whether he had fed the cat that day. That particular problem had seemed to work itself out anyway, now that the cat had learned how to pry open the door to the cupboard where they kept the food. Most things seemed to just work themselves out if he just didn’t think too much about them, Howard observed, and besides – if something really mattered Fiona would take care of it when she got back. Practically the hardest question he had to ponder on almost every evening was locating exactly which pile of discarded take-out containers was concealing the TV remote, and usually the moment he made that discovery was the proudest of his day. As he settled back every evening into the stained couch cushions and bathed himself in the glow of prime-time HD entertainment, Howard confirmed once again that this particular spiritual path was definitely the best for him. He hoped that he continued to be “enlightened” for a long, long time.


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