This is the second entry in a series about my meetings with Nina Gitana, a truly remarkable person.
Rick and I parked near the road, walked past some large boulders, down into a stream bed that probably once had a bridge over it, then up again to Nina’s place. The trees stood silent all around. As we approached the house, I felt a palpable magical buzz — a highly-charged, energized serenity.
A young woman met us at the door and greeted us in subdued, solemn tones. We removed our shoes; then she ushered us into Nina’s presence and withdrew.
Nina sat cross-legged on a white mat or rug, dressed in loose, white and pale pastel clothing — a tunic over pants, I believe. She was a tiny woman with delicate, beautiful bone structure and white hair that was woven into a tight braid that tapered forever, ultimately narrowing into a tip so small it fit through a tiny copper ring with a hole no bigger than a pencil-lead.
I couldn’t guess her age. At one moment, she seemed young, even sexy, her face sometimes opening into a brilliant Hollywood smile; at another she became ancient, deeply resigned, austerely dignified. I loved her instantly, recognized her as an old friend. She gestured for us to sit.
And that’s when I fell afoul of her. While Rick lowered himself to sit a normal fashion, on the floor facing Nina, I tumbled into a somersault, rolled, and landed sitting cross-legged and straight-backed, ready to engage with this astonishing and beautiful woman.
Nina was appalled by my somersault — shocked, deeply insulted. “Do you always enter some else’s home and seat yourself in such fashion?!” she hissed indignantly. She radiated outrage.
I was first stunned and then deeply disappointed by her response. I thought I had come here to meet a wise person! You know, someone with the sense of humor and egalitarianism and a big enough, generous enough nature to accept people as they are. And instead I found an ego-imprisoned person whose immediate response was to demand of me the deference to which she was accustomed!
My somersault warrants context. It simply was like telling her my name, speaking in body-language rather than words. What’s in a name? I am the rolling animal sort of guy. My introduction was intended to convey my feeling of comradeship and trust — that sense of familiar or familial association I’d felt immediately. I know I can be who I am around you, I felt, and you will understand! As a child, I had met aged Buddhist monks who thoroughly understood, enjoyed, and shared my childishness. Apparently Nina was not one of these.
Yes, certainly, there was a young man’s self-assertiveness in that somersault as well. I was 22. I had read Walt Whitman from the time I was kid, and I embraced his celebration of American individualism, the rustic’s lack of concern for European formalities and social constraints. On the manners front, I lived by his maxim: “I cock my hat as I please, indoors or out.”
There was more to it, though. At that time I had been living outdoors much of the time, and had been following a highly eclectic spiritual path. To call it a “discipline” would be to give me far too much credit, but it was my own, a genuine, home-grown art of personal development. I defined my life by my practice. I did Hatha yoga, contemplated Zen koans, played guitar five hours a day with meditative intent, read Taoist and Buddhist literature, worked hard at physical jobs with the reverence deserved of hard work, took psychedelic drugs out in the deep woods, and pursued night-time vision quests. I spent many days alone in Vermont’s wild lands, fasted, and sometimes took days of intentional non-speaking. I believed in and lived by many aspects of (Carlos Castaneda’s) Don Juan Matus’ metaphysics.
Also, I loved exertion and being fit enough to move with ease through the woods and fields. I could run barefoot through rocky woods and fields, somersault down steep hills in boulder-fields and scree, swim miles in mountain lakes. From my brother Nicholas, I had learned the joys of what we now call “free running” — I loved being able to run and climb and roll and swing and leap and balance through any landscape, improvising each move as the terrain demanded. I felt most fully and completely myself when engaging the physical world on these vigorous, strenuous, and playful terms.
I was a mountain-dwelling wild critter of some odd sort and was tickled to meet Nina. Couldn’t she see that? Couldn’t she laugh at me or with me? I am a platypus, Nina — why should my strangeness make you angry?
So it was with simple honesty that to her question — “Do you always enter someone else’s home and seat yourself in such a fashion?!” — I grinned and answered “Yes.”
In my utter lack of apology, she saw another impudent challenge to decorum and to her status. Her face took on its most forbidding, dour look, and a frost of disapproval rimed her gaze.
This was a highly instructive moment for me. Nina was a spiritual aspirant of supreme discipline and a high level of development. She was a witch, a telepath, a shape-changer, a person of extraordinary power who chose a life path like no other.
But to me her reaction revealed her to be as ego-bound as anyone, as prone to the corruptions of status hierarchies, as susceptible to flattery. She was accustomed to being around acolytes who spoke in reverential whispers and glided around her house/ashram like the ghosts of servants past. I wasn’t one of them.
I claim no exception to the allure of status. I have too often been too susceptible to similar seductions, and it has only led me to misery and loneliness and embarrassment.
So the first lesson I took from meeting the remarkable Nina Gitana was that even the most profoundly insightful and charismatic and magical of us is only human. No — “only” sounds disparaging, diminishing, connotes “merely,” implies limits. Is human, I should say. The best among us is human.