Lilliput: Where the Ways Parted

[This is the fourth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

Through a Whambam classmate, Merton, who shared my interest in Eastern religion, I learned of a so-called growth center in upstate New York named Lilliput. Imagine Esalen on a reducing diet without the hot springs, nudity, or New Age superstars. That was Lilliput. After some young "interns" from Lilliput came to Whambam to pitch a series of seminars at the beginning of my sophomore year, I signed up for the series.

On Tuesday afternoon, September 22, 1970, I loaded three classmates into my green VW Super Beetle and drove to Lilliput, squinting into a heavy fog that seemed to descend on us as soon as we crossed the Hudson. Just who arrived at Lilliput that evening—especially the nineteen-year-old behind the wheel of my VW—is something I wonder about. In memory, I see myself as a Whambam sophomore with a passion for literature, a “special” bookshelf of mostly non-Christian spirituality, a persistent attraction to marijuana, a plunging GPA, and a self-esteem on a par with Eeyore’s.

Others would remember me more kindly. Merton wrote years later: “There was a light-heartedness, generosity, and uplift to your spirit. . . . You had an open heart.” About my darker moods, he wrote only, “You also, like all of us, were uncertain about your future and maybe worried a bit about that.” 

It is easy to steer too much to one side or the other when looking in the rear-view mirror at one’s life. I was neither this nor that. I was both/and. Like others my age, I was ungrateful for my past, intoxicated with my present, and worried about my future. I was a serious searcher and a needy adolescent. I was puffed up with a quixotic sense of quest, and I couldn’t decide where my self-confidence had gone.

I forgot my wallet. When I arrived at the front desk of Lilliput that first Tuesday evening and was asked for $95 for the ten-week course, I said I didn’t have it. I guess I somehow thought Lilliput should be free. The desk clerk frowned, and I weaseled my way past him by borrowing $10 for the evening and promising the balance next week. I turned a corner into the dining room and almost ran over Gulliver.

We stood still and face-to-face. He was dressed all in white, topped off with striking black hair and dark eyes. He seemed to stand a head taller than me though he was four inches shorter. I had heard of him, of course, but apparently he had heard of me too. He said, “You are Wepster,” a statement that might have been a question for someone less certain. When he made a p of the b in my Christian name with thin, tight lips, I felt a chill. Everything about him seemed thin and bony, especially his fingers.

I was struck by the hazel of his eyes. He would tell me later that his eyes had scars, and that hazel didn’t cut it. There was no good word in English for his eyes’ color, he said, but then I learned that most things “lost in translation,” according to Gulliver. He quoted phrases and proverbs from his native Serbian language only to add that I couldn’t possibly understand what he had just said because it was untranslatable. This left him dealing arcana that no student could presume to interpret.

Facing him in that dining room with background voices burbling, I thought the light poured down on us alone. I told Gulliver nervously that I had to get to my seminar. He said that no, I didn’t. I needed to talk with him. This preemptive strike might have irked a young man more certain of himself, or less serious about spiritual search. But I was both rudderless and certain of meeting a strong wind, and Gulliver’s urgent demand that I talk with him was a thrilling offer.

I didn’t know that a pattern was being set. Whenever I would indicate that I had something better to do than spend time with him, he would set me straight. Lesson number one was, there was nothing on earth more worthwhile than his company. It was, he said, a matter of valuation. What did I value? Fame, fun, sex, money, approval? Or did I value “the search” and a man who could lead it?

He told me to follow him out the front door of the inn. I followed him across the gravel drive and found myself beneath an oak tree silhouetted against the early night sky. “Sit,” he said. We sat cross-legged and face-to-face, I in half-lotus, he in full. Without touching me physically, Gulliver reached out and grabbed me more directly than anyone I had ever met. He told me, “I can make the difference between you being an ordinary man and an extraordinary man.” I trembled with some combination of autumn chill, anticipatory delight, and terror. He was thirty-eight, I was nineteen.

I had learned from Merton and a few news articles that Gulliver was from Yugoslavia. His ancestry was mixed: Russian-born father, Spanish mother. He seemed to borrow more from her than him. The stories he quoted were mostly from Cervantes and Calderón, not Tolstoy or Chekhov. He had emigrated (fled?) to the United States in the mid-to-late 1950s and had studied (with?) several of the more roguish psychologists on the scene at that time, including Fritz Perls and Jacob Moreno, progenitor of psychodrama. Merton told me a rumor, never confirmed, that Gulliver had visited Wilhelm Reich in his prison cell not long before Reich’s death in November 1957.

At Lilliput, Gulliver had melded new psychological movements like psychodrama and Rolfing with traditional spiritual disciplines like yoga, zen, and Christian contemplative prayer, with a particular spicing of recent spiritual teachings such as those of Krishnamurti and George Gurdjieff. It was enough of a résumé to recommend him as a spiritual mentor. 

The auguries were not all favorable, however. After my first tête-a-tête with Gulliver, I drove home to Whambam and dreamed of a Chihuahua.

In my dream, I was seated at the desk in my dorm room with my back to the door. The stentorian voice of “Jeopardy” host Don Pardo announced a special guest, and I swiveled toward the door to see who it was. A spotlight poured in from the hallway. Canned music swelled, like the theme music for “I Love Lucy,” and I anticipated the entrance of The Woman Out There. A Tarot-reading co-ed had divined that I would soon meet the girl of my dreams, and I believed that I was finally ready for such a meeting. This must be it!

Instead, my dream visitor was an annoying toy dog from south of the border, white coat with black face. The Chihuahua trotted into the center of the room panting. The studio audience howled with hilarity as Don Pardo boomed “a Chihuahua!”

As a child I had learned to wake myself up from nightmares by shaking myself violently in bed. I did so now and woke up in a sweat before the dog could nip at my toes.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Europe: Grand Tour with Gulliver,” click here

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