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Cosmic Relief

Entertaining my in-laws as well as their beliefs.

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By Erika Erhart

My in-laws arrived yesterday. Tim and I picked them up at the airport, loaded their suitcases--heavy with herbal supplements, aromatherapy candles, stress relief pulse point cream, and science fiction paperbacks--into our trunk, and drove to our apartment downtown.

Theresa and Phil share an office in a converted barn behind their house, which is next to a duck pond and behind a nudist campground in Santa Cruz. Theresa, a petite redhead with green eyes, is an extremely successful therapist. She has dozens of loyal clients, a few of whom have moved onto the property in trailers. Willy tends the land and feeds the ducks every morning. Daria keeps an organic vegetable garden and manages the compost pile. John steers nudists to the right address. He used to lead the drum circle every morning in the pasture until some of Theresa's clients complained they had been startled by naked bicyclists with backpacks asking for directions.

"They're harmless people really. I just worry about them riding on those bicycles without protection," Theresa told me the day she gave me an unsuccessful psychic channeling as a wedding gift. Apparently my PMS distorted her ability to tell me what kind of china pattern her deceased mother preferred.

Phil is an engineer with gray hair, big blue eyes, and long, black eyelashes. When I first met him I thought he looked like Chuck E. Cheese, because of his cartoonish wide smile and because those eyes seemed to click when he blinked. Phil is Theresa's second husband. Her son Tim says she's changed a lot since she was married to his father, Bob, and living in Glenview 25 years ago.

"She baked casseroles and played bridge every weekend," he told me after I filled him in on the failed psychic connection. "Now she just wants to live a simple, happy life."

When Tim was nine, Bob got a job in Santa Cruz. Theresa didn't like it at first. She was lonely and became depressed. So she read a lot of self-empowerment books, took long hikes through the redwoods, and became a strict vegetarian.

"I guess you could say I discovered the magic," she says, rubbing an angel charm between her thumb and forefinger. "The magic of California living."

She learned macrame, befriended a channeler and a psychic, took up meditation, and left Bob.

She met Phil a few years later on a spiritual retreat in Hawaii, where she ate a lot of dried fruits and nuts and attended intensive yoga workshops with dead swamis. Theresa communes with them regularly through Summer, a former client who once suffered from a multiple personality disorder but whom she swears is cured.

At the retreat one of them, Mirababa, told her to look for the man with salt-and-pepper hair, ask him to dinner, and compliment him on his large eyes.

"It was destiny," Phil says. He was told to look for a woman with a nice smile and stable career who was looking for a man with salt-and-pepper hair.

Among their shared passions are pay-per-view, the Star Wars trilogy, and The Simpsons.

ooo

On their first full day in Chicago, we take Theresa and Phil to the Art Institute. We want to show them the extensive collection of impressionist paintings, since they've traveled through France en route to various workshops and retreats.

In fact, Theresa and Phil spent their honeymoon on a psychic retreat in France. Ramona, the trip organizer, insisted upon showing the newlyweds a small town she knew about in "Monet country." About 15 minutes outside of Paris, she announced she had no idea where she was and that the red wine she'd drunk at dinner was making her psychic connection "fuzzy." While Phil was moving into the driver's seat and looking for a map, a gang of leather-clad motorcycle riders robbed them at gunpoint. They took everything in the car, including the passports, and punched Phil in the face. After three days of police reports and calls to the American embassy, Theresa and Phil decided to go home early. Ramona felt terrible and tried to be helpful by offering a psychic description of the assailants, whom she "sensed" were Italian. Phil provided more concrete evidence, describing the motorcycles as having large green-red-and-white flags on them and bumper stickers that read italia. Despite all this, the robbers were never caught.

When we get to the museum we head straight for the Degas collection. Theresa lets out a long sigh. Phil grabs her as if to stop her from falling.

"She didn't take her garlic and ginger this morning and looking at herself this way is overwhelming," Phil says.

"I'm fine," Theresa assures us. "It's just so strange looking at myself as a little girl." She points at one of the ballerinas in the painting.

"Mirababa told Theresa she was the subject matter of many artists in her past lives. It's quite possible we'll run into her a few more times while we're here today," Phil explains.

"Mom, come on!" Tim says, laughing nervously.

"Excuse me son, but I'm a believer. After getting out of that awful marriage to your nut-bag father it took me years of therapy and spiritual guidance to figure out what makes me tick. Finally I did. And part of getting to know myself was getting to know all of me, which includes hundreds, if not thousands, of past lives, many of which could be depicted here at this museum."

I steer the group toward the Renaissance and medieval galleries.

"There I am, over there," she says, holding her head. "Ouch. This almost hurts."

"But that's the beheading of Saint John the Baptist."

"I know. I was there. That's me," she replies, walking briskly toward an El Greco.

"And there, too. There I am."

"In the Assumption of the Virgin?"

"Yep."

"I'm one lucky guy!" Phil shouts.

"Would you like to see the modern art gallery?" Tim asks, cowering under an enormous painting of Christ on the cross.

We walk past the Warhols and Dalis and no one says a word. Phil pauses at Grant Wood's American Gothic, then strides over to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. He gets close to the canvas and stares intently at each figure. Pointing to the redhead in a crimson dress he nods his head. "There I am!"

ooo

We leave the museum and walk to the Berghoff to meet my parents for dinner. We haven't all been together since Tim and I got married in Santa Cruz a few years ago. It was at the groom's dinner that Phil mentioned his UFO sightings. My stepfather, Stan, a retired executive in his late 60s, looked at me sternly and whispered, "Get me the hell out of here. These California people are crazies."

My mother, Margo, a former art school teacher, thought Stan was being judgmental, until she heard Theresa's wedding toast, delivered to the sound of chiming bells and a 300-pound woman named Shirley chanting "Om, om," with a plate of brownies in her lap:

"To my lovely son, Tim. We were once warriors. Then we were wolves. Today we're a family. Tomorrow, who knows? May your sweetness live on in all your future lives."

Still, at the restaurant everyone seems relaxed. Theresa asks the waiter to take group photos with her digital camera. Before each shot Phil insists we exclaim "Chewy Chewbacca." My stepfather, oblivious to the reference, says "Chew you su vaca," whereupon the Spanish-speaking waiter bursts into laughter.

"The Art Institute is the most magnificent place. I'm amazed by their collections. I can hardly wait to go back," Phil says, sipping white wine.

"I loved the Monet and Degas paintings," Theresa says, pulling out a souvenir magnet.

"What did you like most about those paintings?" my mother asks.

Theresa adjusts her pearls and starts to explain. My mother turns pale. She is devoutly Greek Orthodox, and the prospect that she's sharing sea bass with John the Baptist is scaring her. Stan seems extremely interested in Phil's claim that he is the woman in the famous Hopper painting. He listens intently, and orders two double whiskey sours.

Theresa describes her relationship with Yukteswar, the dead swami.

"I'm fascinated by this. How much does NutraSweet cost per session?" my mother asks, motioning for the waiter to bring her another vodka.

"Yukteswar charges me $75 an hour."

"Oh, that seems high."

"Well, it includes his travel time and expenses."

"From?"

"From his special world to the channeler. I mean, Summer's body."

"That's a bargain, Margo," my stepfather says.

When the entrees arrive, my in-laws bow their heads, hum, and invoke several goddesses of grain, harvest, vegetables, plant life, seafood, and protein.

"Worlds collide," Tim whispers. He's smiling from ear to ear. He's enjoying this.

Forks clink against plates. We eat awkwardly, smile politely. Phil breaks the silence by describing his upcoming men's trip to northern California. For a week he will write poetry, drum, meditate, and make candles with a dozen other men on a houseboat. Theresa will stay at home in Santa Cruz to lead a spiritual retreat for her clients and their house pets.

"We all need to be closer to our animals," she explains.

Everyone laughs nervously. I crush an ice cube between my teeth.

"I wish I had been closer to Ralph," I hear my mother announce, referring to my childhood dog.

"And perhaps I could have been nicer to Arrow," Stan adds, glancing at me.

"Chad was a good cat."

"Petey was a sweet dog."

"Chelsea was so well behaved for a guinea pig."

"Herky could have lived longer if I played with him more."

I listen in amazement.

"I think you were a pooch in your past," Phil says, nudging my stepfather.

"And you were a squirrel." Theresa points at my mother.

"Could I have been a elephant? I love elephants."

"Maybe."

"Could I have been a lion?" my stepfather asks, his chest puffing out.

"No, but a fennec fox, that's possible."

"I would rather be a lion."

"But foxes are smart, witty, clever," my mother responds sympathetically.

"I just don't see myself as a fox, and those fennec foxes have big ears. Margo, I don't have big ears, do I?"

"No. Well, why don't you ask Theresa more about it? Maybe she can find out for you by calling on Yukteswar or someone. Or Phil can drum the truth out on his trip next month."

"I could try that," Phil says laughing.

"How could I have been a little fox? I need a channeling or something. Theresa and Phil, I'd love it if you would join us at the zoo tomorrow morning."

"That sounds like fun," Theresa responds enthusiastically.

"Let's start at the lion house, around ten." Stan smiles, relieved.

"We'll be there with bells on," Phil exclaims, making a gong sound.

Later that night, over peppermint tea and a vegan brownie, I ask Theresa what kind of animal I was in a past life. She closes her eyes and lets out a long breath.

"A black bear," she says smiling. "An amazing animal. Lovely, just like you."

I smile and stretch out my hand in front of me. My nails look pointed and sharp. I imagine them sheathed in shiny black fur. Theresa's eyes are closed and she's humming. Phil is rubbing jasmine oil into his temples and doing breathing exercises. They look happy and peaceful. I look over at Tim, bend my fingers like claws, and let out a slight growl.

Theresa's eyes open quickly and she laughs. "Oh no, my dear!" she says. "You're a believer." o

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