I was sixteen when I turned down a full scholarship to Wellesley College. I don’t remember what that scholarship was worth in 1972 dollars, but I’d have to say, from my perspective now, that it would have been priceless. Wellesley offered me an open door into science and philosophy and language and strong women and self-esteem and intellectual passion that could have opened the world to me. They offered me Aristotle and Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Collette, Emily Dickinson and Michelangelo. They offered me classical sculpture, medieval history and macroeconomics, the riches of the Renaissance, fluency in a language, travel abroad, and in 1972, the rare opportunity to live at the beating heart of the emerging wave of feminism.
For years, whenever the subject came up, I joked with my mother, “If I’d gone to Wellesley, Mom, I just would have come out sooner.” That cavalier dismissal was my way of taunting my mother-but perhaps I was also deflecting the lost opportunity I must have sensed even then. When you turn your back on all of Western civilization and thumb your nose at a world-class education, when you say you want nothing to do with a network of some of the brightest and most talented women in the world, you are burning one serious bridge behind you. I would not get another shot at that kind of education. I’m sure some other high school senior was glad to have it; my refusal to accept the scholarship made some other parent’s day. But at the time, I was gleeful in my disdain for Wellesley, absolute in my dismissal of all it stood for. I slammed that door behind me and said, “No, I do not want your money. I do not want your school. I do not want your traditions and your hallowed halls. I do not want to be a Wellesley girl.” The day I turned that scholarship down I broke my mother’s heart, broke it in a way that I can only now, four decades later, understand.
“What’s the big deal?” I told her, as only an arrogant teenager can do. “It’s my life.”
And it was. At sixteen I had fallen in love with perfection. I had followed my brother to the lotus feet of Satguru Maharaj Ji, a young Indian boy who drove Rolls Royces and talked about the meaning of life using the mechanics of his car as a metaphor. I was devout, a seeker of Truth with a capital T.
I wanted nothing to do with the path my mother had so painstakingly set before me. I wanted to live in the ashram, to join my brother, Paul, to sit at the feet of the Perfect Master, to serve Guru Maharaj Ji and leave the empty things of this world behind. I was convinced that this young Indian boy god could teach me the path of liberation.
My plan, dreamed up during my junior year, was to follow Paul to Denver, the bustling hub of the Divine Light Mission, to move into a premie house with other devotees of Maharaj Ji and serve the Lord. I was set to do it too, the day I graduated from high school. But my mother said she would send the police after me and have them pick me up as a runaway. She was desperate; she was losing her grip on me. At the time, I dismissed her as a control freak, a cloying Jewish mother, and a bourgeois fool. Now of course, I know better.
Eventually we came to an uneasy truce. I would attend Douglass College until I turned 18, and during that year and a half, I would live with a group of premies who were also students at Rutgers University. They were upperclassmen and grad students, all five years older than me, at least. My mother got special permission for me to live off campus and I moved into a communal girls’ room in the East Brunswick, New Jersey premie house. As part of my room and board, I served as housemother. My main duty was shopping and cooking dinner for our household. As lacto-ovo-vegetarians, we ate no meat, fish or eggs.
In my spare time, I eagerly thumbed through The Moosewood Cookbook and Ten Talents, looking for new recipes. I cooked tofu a la king and millet sunflower loaf. I made my own yogurt, grew alfalfa sprouts in glass gallon jars, and made four loaves of zucchini nut bread at a time. Each week, I drove our van to the Divine Light Mission food coop in New York City to pick up our food; in exchange, I bagged brown rice from 50-pound sacks and bottled quarts of tahini. I did the wash for twelve. At night, I spoke at the community satsang programs we held in our living room, where we held discourses about Truth and introduced people to Maharaj Ji. And in the mornings, I attended Douglass College, where I took 18 credits of early childhood education and theatre arts, mirroring my mother’s interests perfectly. It never occurred to me to think about what I might want to learn.
The day I turned 18, I signed the papers to quit college and applied for the newly forming novitiate training program. It was to be called the City of Love and Light and we would live in three run-down floors of the Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio, Texas. While I waited for word that I’d been accepted, my mother convinced me to finish out the semester. “Laurie, at least finish out your classes. You never know when you might want to transfer to another school.” I scoffed, but got all A’s. As soon as the semester ended, I packed up and flew to San Antonio with a small suitcase and the fervor of a convert.