By Marlena Fiol
“Why are we even together? All we ever do is fight.” I sat in a heap on the floor at the foot of our staircase. Ed stomped down the stairs, passed me without stopping, and left the house.
I heard his car back out of the garage. “I hate you!” I yelled at the walls.
We had met three years earlier, when I interviewed for a position at the University of Colorado. Shortly after I joined the faculty, our bodies found each other. We were complete misfits. I loved to sing; he couldn’t hold a tune. I loved to cook; he had no interest. He spent money without a thought; I saved money for that rainy day. He was a health nut, addicted to aerobic exercise of any kind, especially riding a bike; I had never owned serious sneakers in my life. Red high heels were more my style.
Our bodies didn’t care. Just being in the same room with Ed sent shivers up and down my spine. We sat through faculty meetings, casually pretending to be distant colleagues, but all the while, I fidgeted in my seat, trying unsuccessfully to ignore his electrifying presence across the room.
My feelings for him scared me. I had made terrible mistakes in judgment about men in the past and had promised myself I would never again open my heart to a man. I felt vulnerable and exposed and very soon began to back away.
“I can’t see you this weekend,” I said one Friday morning, only a few months into our relationship. Ed had entered my office and closed the door. So far, we had successfully kept our relationship a secret from our colleagues.
“Why not?” He stood with his back to the door.
“I’m still sort of seeing someone who comes up occasionally from Houston,” I said.
“So I guess I’m just supposed to hang around until you decide we can see each other?” Ed’s voice held a sharp edge. “I don’t think so.”
“You can go hang out with your psychic friends in Boulder. You’d rather do that than be with me anyway.” I spat out the words. Ed made frequent trips to an energy healer named Tamara in Boulder. It made me uncomfortable in ways I didn’t fully understand. Tamara was a self-proclaimed psychic seer. I was a business professor and a scientific scholar, so I was seriously skeptic of such things.
“Suit yourself.” He left and slammed my office door behind him.
Our increasingly regular fights nearly always ended in days and sometimes weeks of unyielding silence.
“Let’s talk,” Ed said one day after returning from Boulder. I could still smell traces of the incense that often clung to his body when he returned from his visits to Tamara. “I’m thinking that maybe seeing a spiritual guru could help us.”
“Is that what your Tamara thinks?” I sneered.
I wanted to oppose the idea, but something deep down told me we were reaching the end of our options. Ed had seen a spiritual guru named Amma years before, shortly after separating from his wife, Beth, and had asked her, “What should I do about my relationship with Beth?” He told me that Amma’s answer, through interpreters, had been, “You should get a divorce.” Believing she must have misunderstood, he had asked the question again. The answer was the same.
“OK, fine, but we’re not asking her anything,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t want to hear any of her mumbo-jumbo about our relationship.”
A couple months later, in May 1994, we traveled to an island near Seattle to be in the presence of Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, a Hindu spiritual leader. Known to her devotees as Amma, meaning “Mother,” she is also frequently referred to as the “hugging saint” because of her trademark blessing: a hug in her lap. Wherever Amma went, people waited for hours in order to kneel before her and be hugged—just as we were doing on that chilly late afternoon.
We arrived at 6:00 p.m., thirty minutes before the doors of the meditation center were to open. Lines of people waiting to enter wrapped around the corner of the building, a snake of bodies shielding themselves from the misty cold air of Washington’s springtime. Many of them wore light-colored tunics and sandals. I felt out of place and awkward in my traditional western street clothes.
When the doors opened, we entered the hall with the rest of the waiting crowd. Amma sat cross-legged on a stage at the front. She was a very dark-skinned woman, dressed in a white cloth that wrapped around her heavy-set body. Her black hair was tied behind her back in a single braid. Surrounding her was a group of devotees, draped in orange robes, managing the crowd.
The devotees instructed us to form two rows in the center of the packed hall. I fell in line behind Ed rather than next to him, letting him lead the way and feeling safer in his shadow. Slowly, we made our way on our knees to the front of the room, two by two. I began to feel a bit giddy from the sound of the drumbeats and rhythmic chanting that filled the space and the incense that hung heavy in the air. I closed my eyes, shook my head as though clearing it of cobwebs, and frowned. What am I doing here?
At the front of the line, Amma invited first one person and then the person in the other line next to him or her up into her lap, one at a time. When it was Ed’s turn, she wrapped him into her arms. But instead of hugging him and then giving a turn to the person beside him from the other line, she looked over Ed’s shoulder at me and gestured that I should join him in her lap.
I didn’t move and looked around me, not understanding what I was supposed to do. This is not how she’s been doing it, I thought, suddenly even more uncertain about having come. Not knowing what else to do, I crawled forward. Together, Ed and I buried our faces into her pillowy hug, which smelled like sweet lavender and talcum powder. She rocked us gently and chanted something into our ears that sounded like “Ma, Ma, Ma.”
I have no idea how long we were in her lap. Time had stopped. My breathing synchronized with Ed’s and Amma’s, flowing easily from deep in my belly. I felt an unfamiliar spaciousness inside and around me. The heavy weight that so often filled my chest had lifted. It seemed like I was floating in weightless, limitless space.
Then her volunteers stood us up and turned us around to make room for the next person in line. We left her arms with Hershey’s Kisses in our hands and flower petals in our hair. As we walked unsteadily to the back of the hall to collect our shoes, one of her devotees stopped us and said, “Amma just married you two.”
The peace I had felt in Amma’s lap just moments before vanished. In its place came something close to panic, an unsettling heaviness that pressed down on my chest. I picked up my shoes and walked toward the exit. Holding my hands up against both ears, I thought, I knew I shouldn’t have come.
“Ed…” I began.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he mumbled, turning to walk out of the building.
More than a year passed. We seldom spoke about our experience with Amma and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. Our fights intensified.
“You’re never around. Everything else in your life is more important than I am,” I screamed one day when Ed returned after being on the road for four days of public speaking.
“Being around this fury is not my idea of fun,” he yelled back. “I’m exhausted. I’m beat. And I don’t need your criticism.”
For days after that, when we met at work, cold silence filled the space between us.
“Maybe I should go up to Boulder to see Tamara,” I said, when we finally made up after the latest fight. “You seem to think that she helps you a lot. Maybe she can help me, help us. This yo-yo of a relationship is going to kill us both.”
“Really? You want to see Tamara?” His mouth hung open in obvious disbelief.
“Maybe you could come with me for my first session?” I asked. “If she’s the intuitive you say she is, maybe she can help us figure out what we’re doing—you and I.”
We made the appointment. As we walked up the steps to her front door, I fought the urge to flee.
Tamara opened the door and smiled. “Welcome. Hi, Marlena, I’m Tamara.” She hugged us both. I shrank away from the familiar incense.
“Come in, and sit down. I have something in mind for this session,” she said, leading us into her house. “Ed, I want you to sit in this room. Marlena, please come over here into this other room. I want to read the energy between you when you’re not in each other’s presence.”
This is so weird, I thought. I can’t believe I suggested this.
Tamara asked us to both close our eyes and relax. After what seemed like a long time, she brought Ed over to where I sat and seated him next to me.
“OK, you two. Here’s what I see: You are meant to be together. I see why Amma married you. You are soul mates. The friction and the fighting? That’s because you are resisting your true path.”
I felt my shoulders tensing. “I don’t think…” I began.
Tamara interrupted, “Of course, this feels really uncomfortable, and committing yourselves to one another is scary for both of you, but yes, I’m sure of it. You are meant to be together.”
Ed and I stared at each other in silence. She continued, “I have a minister’s license. I would be honored to marry you.”
I watched Ed’s jaw muscles twitch and turned my eyes down to stare into my lap. We just sat there quietly for what seemed like a long time. Finally, I placed one hand on his knee. “This feels bigger than us,” I whispered.
Our eyes met, and we both nodded silently.
The prior year, even though we had no plan to marry, we had bought a small plot of land along the North Fork of the Colorado River, about five miles outside of the mountain village of Grand Lake, Colorado. Our dream was to some day build a retreat cabin on that land. That’s where we decided to be married, on the 1st of February.
The night before our wedding day, a snowstorm had blown in. By morning, the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide we had to drive over to get to our wedding site was closed. We kept checking the weather reports, wondering if this really was going to be our wedding day. Finally, at about noon, the pass opened. Tamara and her boyfriend met us at a florist near our house. We bought a bouquet of wildflowers and headed west, away from Denver, toward Berthoud Pass.
The pass, towering over 11,000 feet with its steep grades, sharp drop-offs, and repeated switchbacks, was both treacherous and breathtaking. Ed drove slowly through the soft white stillness, his eyes focused on the road. Neither of us spoke much, except about the driving conditions.
When we reached our small plot of land just outside of Grand Lake, Ed parked the car in front of a six-foot packed wall of plowed snow. We climbed over the bank and pushed our way through crotch-high snow from the road to a craggy old pine tree next to the river, the spot we had chosen for our ceremony. I tried to place my feet into the deep wells in the snow left by Ed’s footsteps in front of me. Behind me, I could hear Tamara and her partner breathing hard with the exertion of following us the short distance to our wedding spot.
We wore old ski pants, ski jackets, ski hats, and Sorel snow boots. Nothing matched. The only celebratory part of our attire was a ceremonial cloth we wrapped around our shoulders. We had bought the cloth while traveling in Africa the prior month, from a woman who claimed to be a holy lady.
Ed and I stood in the snow beside the ancient craggy tree, facing the frozen river. The sun was setting on the other side, casting a reddish hue over the frigid white landscape. I looked at the man who was about to become my husband and felt my pulse quicken. We were taking this important step, despite significant lingering doubts about our relationship, because some holy lady and a psychic healer thought we were meant to be together. We’re respected business professors and professional management consultants. What would our colleagues think? Are we out of our minds? I wondered.
I was not alone in wondering. For nearly a century, hardline skeptics of paranormal events have offered significant monetary awards for proof of their existence. As of 2018, these prizes have added up to over a million dollars. Apparently, none of them has been awarded, leading to further skepticism. The term “skepticism,” however, means doubt, not denial, and sometimes we fail to distinguish the two. I am still a doubter, almost twenty-five years after that snowy February day, when Ed and I succumbed to the higher power of those who seemingly saw what we could not. But it’s a power I can no longer deny.
We just celebrated an anniversary. Ed takes my wrinkled hand in his. “Every year of our journey together has been deeper and richer than the year before,” he whispers. “I wonder what Amma saw.”
I squeeze his hand. “Yes, I wonder…”
Marlena Fiol, PhD, is an author, scholar, speaker and spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun, The Manifest-Station and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at marlenafiol.com.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.