25 November 2009

Phyllis Ott: Highlights of an Informal Talk at Meher Center (Original Kitchen), October 28, 2009:


The way Phyllis Ott gives a talk is unique—a brilliant, creative one-woman show. You never know what to expect. Standing in the doorway to the porch of the Original Kitchen while her audience sat in the living room area, with a flourish Phyllis donned the blue scarf Mehera had bestowed on her in 1965—“my credentials,” she called them.


But that is not Phyllis’s only credential. In 1966, she and her family became the only Baba-lovers to be permitted by Baba to build their house on Meher Center property. Others had been offered the chance to do so, but as things turned out, only the Otts ended up with this distinction. To be chosen, as it were, to make your home on God’s five hundred little acres—what does that mean? It’s anyone’s guess, but it boggles the mind. Her contributions to the life of the Center are countless. She is remembered by many visitors over the years for hosting teas with guests from around the world, as well as leading meetings for discussion of God Speaks, Meher Baba’s master work, in which she has immersed herself (He had told her to read it several times). I feel her very presence here has some mystical impact, some je ne sais quoi that often goes unacknowledged, or maybe it’s that no one is able to identify or recognize or describe it.


Back to her talk: Phyllis tells us she once wondered, “Does Baba know me?” But now “That is accomplished. He might not pick me out of a crowd, but he created a name for me: Phyl”—which, when combined with the name of her husband, Lyn Ott, made “Phylyn.” Phyllis saw this as echoing the new vocabulary of the time, the 1960s, when the media theorist Marshall McLuhan spoke of "cool" media that require the viewer to “fill in” (Phylyn) the blanks. The wife-and-husband team Phylyn created paintings together when Lyn’s visual impairment had progressed to the point where he could no longer complete a painting without help. Or, as Phyllis puts it: “Chances are if you have a Lyn Ott painting, my fingers are in it.”


And then there are the seventeen magnificent Phylyn murals created in 1975 for the Meher Pilgrim Center in Meherabad—more credentials, should you require them. Phyllis of course also painted, and still paints, her own distinctive paintings of or inspired by Meher Baba.


Phyllis Ott went alone to see Meher Baba in India in 1964, while Lyn stayed home. Because Baba had postponed a planned darshan till December of 1965, Lyn felt it would be disobedient to go earlier. But Phyllis was following a clear inner call to “find and love the Self that lives within.” Everything was ready for her trip in a week—it was a cinch.


On the plane to India the man next to her was a Ph.D. from Harvard who told her he was going to Africa to study the inception of states. Following the decolonization of Africa, new independent states were emerging at that time—some had sad outcomes, a few were victorious. Phyllis (who also graduated from Harvard) thought to herself: I’m going to India to study the inception of a religion.


To express what she was feeling in those days, Phyllis passed around a black and white photo from an old Life magazine, showing the tunnel under the English Channel at the moment when the French diggers met the English diggers in the middle—she said it synchronized with her experience of consciously living through a spiritual dark night of the soul. It was like a dark tunnel, and when she went to India she was hoping she would see light at the end of it soon. The photo was dark, dramatic, and misty. In sharing it with us, she transmitted her artist’s way of communicating in imagery.


Although Phyllis had asked Lyn not to tell people she had gone to India, he did inform Darwin Shaw. And so Darwin arranged for Phyllis to be met at the airport when she reached Bombay on Sunday evening of December 20.


On arrival at Ahmednagar, Phyllis was told Baba wanted to see her at nine the next morning, the 21st. She was also told that she was going to meet Mehera. This didn’t excite her, she admits. Previously, Jeanne Shaw and her daughter Leatrice had shown Phyllis a little photo of a beautiful woman—Mehera, Baba’s most beloved disciple. But in those days, Phyllis says, “I thought of women as the ‘second sex’”—that phrase is the title of a famous classic of early feminism by the French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir—“and I didn’t think anything of it.”


In her meeting with Baba, He asked her, “Now that you’re here, what do you want to do?”


When you met Baba, Phyllis said, you wanted to stay with Him; you didn’t want to go back to what you were before. Phyllis told Baba: “I came to see you. My return flight leaves Wednesday, and I want to stay near you for a few days.”


Baba replied: “No one can stay here anymore,” meaning Meherazad, where Baba lived. “You can stay at Villoo’s.” (Visiting Baba-lovers were often graciously accommodated in the Ahmednagar home of Villoo and Sarosh Irani.)


There were three darshans for Phyllis that day. The first was in the company of about thirty others. Adi Jr., Baba’s brother, was there with his wife, Freny, and their daughter, Shireen (now Shireen Bonner), who was then seven or eight years old. Also there was Adi’s son, Dara, who was there to make sure Baba kept His promise to arrange his marriage. At the age of nineteen, Dara, like Lyn Ott, was going blind from retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Phyllis then was eager to know how one learned to cope with this progressive condition, characterized by tunnel vision and culminating in total loss of sight. (Phyllis added that her twenty-year-old grandson is currently learning to live with this genetic disease.)


Dr. Goher told Phyllis not to feel bad about Baba’s not letting her stay: “It’s not easy to stay in Meherazad,” she said. But Phyllis did feel hurt. When Robert Dreyfuss visited Baba in 1965, he was permitted to stay in Meherazad, but by then, Phyllis says, “I wasn’t jealous; I was happy for him. No hocus pocus, but I had noticed some changes in myself.”


Phyllis’s life had been concerned with the love of family and friends, and she suffered when she felt rejected by people. She wanted to meet Baba so she could learn to love others without fear of rejection. It may not have been a spiritual aspiration, she tells us, but that’s what she felt.


The second darshan was private — others were sent out of the room. She did not speak of it at this talk.


Then there was the third darshan. Baba said: Why didn’t you bring Lyn? Phyllis had urged Lyn to come with her, but he hadn’t wanted to break Baba’s order. Phyllis spoke to Baba of Lyn’s blindness and how it wasn’t practical for him to travel. (Although Phyllis wanted Lyn to be independent, he often bumped into walls, she said, not even putting his hand out to protectively feel his way.)


Baba asked: Could Lyn see my face? Phyllis told us how hard it was to live with someone (her husband) who could not see her face, with all that a face conveys and communicates—instead, “all he could do was hear my awful Boston/Harvard accent” (this brought laughter).


On the wall at Mandali Hall, there was a white sign that reminded Phyllis of signs one used to see in butcher shops telling you the price of lamb or liver; it said something like: Greater than love is obedience, and greater than obedience is surrender. Reading this sign was the first time Phyllis had heard about obedience and surrender; she had only heard about love. So to Baba’s question of why Lyn didn’t come, her answer was: “Lyn obeys.” Baba said, “And you, Phyllis? Do you obey?”


Phyllis didn’t know how to answer that. Baba was giving her eye-to-eye attention. “A really important person is interested in you, it was amazing. I felt like a drum that was struck, and out of me came a response that surprised me as much as anyone.”


“And you, Phyllis? Do you obey?”


“I do, but Baba doesn’t.” That’s what came out of her mouth. And it was the right answer! Baba gave her surrender, she says.


“Tell Lyn I want him to come to India.” How perfectly Baba gave that kindness—Lyn being too timid to come because the date had been changed.


“I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have come without him. He could not come by himself. I was hoping Baba would get him escorted by someone, but Baba asked, ‘Is there any reason you can’t come with him?’” Phyllis admits she instantly thought of the expense, but she did not voice the thought because she felt she ought not to speak to Baba of money. Instead she said, “I can do it.” Baba said, “I want you to accompany him. Tell him I will show him my face as it really is. This I give to very few.”


Baba was done talking to Phyllis, and she was now just listening as he spoke to two girls from Australia: “How is your family? How is your mother?” etc. [Baba customarily put visitors at ease with loving inquiries about their health and family.] Then he’s telling them he wants them to leave this afternoon and take a bus to Pune to meet his brother Jal, who will take them on a tour of places connected with the birth and life of Meher Baba. Then he turns and says, “Phyllis, how would you like to go with the girls?” Phyllis began, “But Baba, we already decided what I’m going to do…” but suddenly she felt a kind of click (Phyllis made the sound) as if He had turned on her voice saying, “Yes, Baba, I’ll go with the girls.” But she felt terrible about it, as if she might have seen Him again had she not been so weak.


After Baba saw Phyllis privately, she was brought to greet Mehera. Adi conveyed to Phyllis an order for her concerning Mehera. Phyllis describes seeing two women descend the stairs (at Meherazad). Phyllis was then thirty-seven or thirty-eight; Mehera was seventeen years older and Mani ten years older. They didn’t look at all strange—Mehera was dressed Western style [I assume this means skirt and blouse], Mani in her Punjabi suit; they had Western hairstyles. Phyllis was struck by Mehera’s beauty.


The mandali were people who made you feel like you were somebody. Mani said, “And here’s Phyllis, who writes such loving letters.” Phyllis laughs with wonder and tells us her last letter to them had recounted everything she ate for dinner when out with friends. (“And that’s not a bad thing to write in a letter,” Phyllis added.)


Mehera took Phyllis in her arms—this contrasted with Baba, who had seemed cool except for His affection with His little niece Shireen, and that had disappointed Phyllis, who dreamed of being kissed by the Prince who made you no longer a frog. But Mehera kissed her on the mouth! (Later, at home, Darwin and Jeanne Shaw refused to believe this, pronouncing it ridiculous—but it was true, Phyllis says.) Mehera’s skin was lovely, and Phyllis asked her what she used. Glycerine and rosewater, Mehera replied. “I have stolen the secret of beauty of the Queen of the Universe!” Phyllis thought, and she later went searching for this magical cosmetic in stores.


Phyllis saw how the women mandali lived in poverty, without indoor plumbing or electricity. Francis Brabazon also told her the mandali had no money. He gave her a signed copy of his book Stay with God [a book about which Baba said: "My love will touch the heart of all who read it, as no book has ever done. It will appeal to the highest intellects and to those with simple hearts."]. Francis told Phyllis the meaning of the title: it means it’s only a stay. “I’m here with a ticket back to Australia,” he said. Looking at Adele Wolkin in the audience, Phyllis added, “If He’s going to keep you, He sends you home.” She was referring to the fact that Adele, like a number of other disciples and close lovers of Baba who had lived with Him in India, were eventually instructed to return home.


“You are here as long as Baba permits,” Phyllis says. Now Phyllis has been living in her house on Meher Center for more than forty-three years. “I was really sincere when I told Baba I wanted to stay with Him. And I’m here for life. Lyn was too. When we were given the option to move here from Woodstock, New York, and build a home on the Center, at first I didn’t want to do it. Why would I want to live in the land of Jim Crow [the South]?” Woodstock, famous as an artists’ colony, was wonderful—the mountains, the music and theater, and “the respect that people had for free spirits” like herself. In Myrtle Beach there were times when Elizabeth Patterson told Phyllis she was dressed inappropriately, and even took Phyllis to her beautician. So why stay here in Myrtle Beach? No other reason but to stay near Baba.


Phyllis answered a few questions. Adele wanted to know about Phyllis’s memoir, entitled Love Bade Me Welcome. Phyllis explained that the title came from a poem called “Love” by George Herbert (1593-1633). In an extraordinary impromptu performance, Phyllis succinctly interpreted the poem for us through dramatic gesture and storytelling. She did not recite the poem verbatim; part of it she paraphrased. Let me give you the poem here (I confess that I probably would not have understood it without Phyllis’s interpretation). Then I’ll try to describe, to the best of my memory, how Phyllis brought it to life for us so vividly—framed in the doorway where she stood as if on stage—and made us see how it pertained to her own encounter with Love.


Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lack'd anything.


"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";

Love said, "You shall be he."

"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee."

Love took my hand and smiling did reply,

"Who made the eyes but I?"


"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve."

"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"

"My dear, then I will serve."

"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."

So I did sit and eat.


Phyllis evoked the scene: Upstairs, Lord Jesus is at the Last Supper with His disciples. A person—“perhaps a woman”—climbs the steps and timidly opens the door. Then she shrinks back, “Oh, forgive me…I shouldn’t have…” But the Lord steps forward and welcomes her, asking, “What do you need? How may I help you?” “Oh no,” the woman cries, “I am not worthy!” That was Phyllis acting the part of the woman. Then she steps into the role of the Lord, who confidently declares, “Well, we’ll change that!” Still the woman expresses her shame, her unworthiness. And now Phyllis stretches her arms out, as if on a cross, and powerfully quotes directly from the poem the Lord’s words: And know you not who bore the blame?


The next line, from the woman, ends with a period in the excerpt I copied from the Internet; but Phyllis spoke it as a question, uttered by one who can hardly believe her great fortune: “My dear … then I will serve?” And with a flourish the Lord beckons her to His table, to “taste his meat.”


If you haven’t read Phyllis’s memoir, coauthored with the talented Barbara Scott, please do so. You will find there many details of the experiences just touched on here, plus her subsequent trip to India with Lyn, and much more.

1 comment:

Rabbi TZiPi Radonsky, Ph.D. said...

Kendra, this is beautiful and you capture the essence of our friend, thank you, TZiPi

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.