Katherine Lippa's father believes he is a prophet from another planet. Told with a surprising amount of humor and insight, Hiding in Water uses its unique platform to share a universal story of reconciling belief with reality: belief in ourselves, in others, in our chosen religions, and even in those who lead our countries.
In the years before she was born, author Katherine Lippa’s father co-founded a group in which the participants believed they could levitate and move buildings with their minds. His parenting style was based on the premise that all people have a psychic nature and that with special training, a child can harness and build on those abilities. Young Miss Lippa was a willing participant in the experiment until the day she came to believe that her “powers” caused an unforgivable tragedy. Told with a surprising amount of humor and insight, Hiding in Water uses its unique platform to share a universal story of reconciling belief with reality: belief in ourselves, in others, in our chosen religions, and even in those who lead our countries.
The memoir has replaced the first novel. One might even say that I had a literary imperative to share this story. ...I don’t say that. In fact, before writing Hiding in Water I had to ask myself: am I really so self-absorbed to think anyone would be interested in my life as a kid growing up in Maine in the ‘80s, whose father claimed to be a prophet from another planet, and who believed that she had psychic powers? The answer, I must admit, is yes I am indeed that self-absorbed. The purpose of Hiding in Water, however, is to use that unique platform to share discoveries about our world and who we are in it.
Once I decided the story was of value, I was faced with the technical issues of telling it. There is something inherently fallible in the craft of memoir. After all, how am I to remember the exact words spoken in conversations that took place between two and three decades ago? So to begin the process of writing this book, I spent three years asking questions of those with whom I had the conversations or who, at the very least, were present for them; I looked through legal and medical documents; I confirmed my memory of the weather on any given day with meteorology reports. Overall, I was relieved to find that my recollections matched up with the facts as well as the remembrances of others. And then there was that journal...kept in pristine condition save for the odor of a book that has been tucked away in a box, in a basement, in a house for many years; the rose printed cloth cover still as clean as the day I first wrote on its pages. This journal, that I began at age ten and finished at age fourteen, forms much of the basis for Hiding in Water.
According to my father, my parents met in “some religious organization.” According to my mother, they met in a cult. The Holy Order of MANS (plural) was founded in San Francisco in the late 1960’s. MANS was an acronym, which at the time was known only to the inner circle of the group. The members of the outer circle must have been left to guess its meaning. Maybe it’s “mastering the art of nothingness.” No that can’t be it. How about “mandatory abdication of normal society?” Probably not. In fact, it stood for ‘Mysterion, Agape, Nous, Sophia,’ Greek for mystery, love, mind, and wisdom.
My father, Matthew, was one of the group’s founding members. He had been raised in a Jewish household, and though religious law decreed that he was Jewish no matter what, he had displayed an early defiance of tradition. His Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony in which boys participate when they reach age thirteen and become accountable for their actions, lasted only a few minutes. Matthew refused to read aloud from the Torah and walked out. Instead, he entered the fold of adulthood by exploring multiple religions. Inasmuch as Matthew was a spiritual student, he also served a practical purpose for the Holy Order of MANS, building structures like the altar by which lessons were taught and prayers were prayed.
The leader was a man named Earl Blighton, a cult entrepreneur and former social worker and engineer who had served as an apprentice in other successful groups and then began his own movement. Blighton ordained himself a Science of Man minister and called himself alternately ‘Father’ Blighton and ‘Master Paul,’ a name chosen because of the group’s adoption of certain apostolic Catholic, or Pauline Catholic, rituals and hierarchy. The Father/Master taught his brand of mysticism to those who had grown weary of the hippie lifestyle and who were searching for a new path to enlightenment. Telepathic training was considered the norm. Spiritual illumination had as much to do with understanding the Universe as it did the belief that with practice one could levitate, become temporarily invisible, and develop the power to move objects with one’s mind.
My mother was avoiding her cloistered East Coast family and seeking out individuals she considered to be more open-minded. San Francisco was a whole new world to her. The counterculture explosion there was exciting and liberating. Young people bucked authority and re-imagined the American Dream. Artists created huge papier-mâché animals and attached them to buildings. My mother, an artist herself, dropped acid and watched a crocodile crawl down the exterior of an apartment. When she ran out of money, she found the Holy Order of MANS, or HOOM as it was called by insiders. For my father, HOOM was a true avocation. For my mother, it seemed to be a good place to stay, among intellectuals and the spiritual elite.
The group did some good as well. It purchased houses and filled them with homeless kids from the area. Each young person had to get a job, and the proceeds from that job would go to the organization, which would in turn provide food, shelter and spiritual teachings. In July of 1968, Matthew became the first student to be ordained to mastery. He was appointed to house leader and, encouraged by Blighton and his wife, ‘Mother’ Blighton, my parents married shortly thereafter. He proposed to my mother with a beautiful ring inscribed, I love you Elizabeth, for always. My mother’s name is Martha.
In 1969, Blighton announced his intention to revise the order’s vow ceremony so that a member’s commitment would be for life. Prior to that, commitment was until a person had reached “spiritual maturity.” As Matthew intended to start a movement of his own, this would not do. He argued against the revision, and when Blighton refused to reconsider, Matthew led his household in a revolt against the measure.
Blighton did not tolerate any challenges to his authority and removed Matthew from his position as house leader and sent him on a mission to Hawaii to purchase a new property. Martha, who had grown to dislike other aspects of the order (such as how the homeless kids could never get a leg up because all of their money went to HOOM) left with her new husband. In Hawaii, once they called to check in, they were told that they had been expelled from the order and added to the ‘banned’ list. For HOOM members, this was akin to a sentence of spiritual death.
My parents didn’t have enough money to leave Hawaii, so they stayed. My brother, Michael, was born later that year. Most of the locals thought Michael was a Hawaiian baby girl. His lashes were long and thick, and his skin was dark and smooth. In fact, he was simply a combination of Martha’s Italian side and Matthew’s Russian and Polish lineage.
My parents lived in Hawaii for three years and then moved to Martha’s home state of Maine where I was born on June 10th, 1973. It is often said by visitors that Maine feels like its own country. On the one hand, the state has a shockingly limited amount of diversity (in fact, for years it has led the nation in least amount of people of color). On the other hand, only in Maine can you be within one hundred miles of Denmark, Peru and China. That is, Denmark, Peru and China, Maine. Many of the towns are named after countries, including Norway, Sweden, Poland and Mexico. The state also boasts the most stolen and replaced sign in the country, which points to all of these various worldwide namesakes.
Maine is much like other states that rely on the tourist industry, in that we generally dislike tourists. Come to Maine. Shop at LL Bean. Eat our lobster. But don’t talk to us. ...In fact, could you just leave your wallet on the counter and go home? We’ll send it back to you after tourist season. In some ways, Maine was a perfect fit for Matthew, who generally liked to keep his distance from other people unless he was selling them something or teaching them something. Martha designed the house they built in the small country town of Limington. As they were the first residents on the newly bulldozed dirt road, they were given the privilege of naming it. Matthew decided on Lippaline Lane.
Together, my parents built a successful business called Dabble Art. Theirs was the start of a popular trend of color-in posters. Martha would draw elaborate black-and-white illustrations of sea adventures, gods and goddesses, forest scenes, and various other-worldly designs. Matthew would package copies of the prints with a set of markers and a clever marketing ploy that reflected the spirit of the times: “Designed for people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors.” Once their products started becoming successful, a larger West Coast company called Doodle Art was formed with the intention of purchasing Dabble Art and expanding. When my parents declined, their new competitor sought to employ a team of artists who could draw similarly to my mother.
Matthew was a natural salesman. He could ask the right questions and be convincing enough so that a prospect would believe they would make a great deal of money by selling Dabble Art posters. If he was unable to persuade a business owner to carry the posters, he would be annoying enough so that they would accept a few just to make him go away. He was dogged in his approach. He went to every store, every craft show, every fair and festival. He even went so far as to travel to New York, where he worked tradeshows.
During one weekend, a gentleman with a Metropolitan Museum of Art badge strolled by the Dabble Art booth more than once. After the third or fourth walk-by, Matthew stopped the man and asked what had brought him there. He told Matthew that the museum was looking for an artist to paint a mural in their lobby. Martha’s drawings were exactly the style for which they were looking. Excited, Matthew called Martha to tell her. Her response was absolute. “Matt, I can’t go to New York to paint a mural. I’ve got two little kids to look after.” The matter was dropped.
A year later, Martha did ask Matthew to look after her two kids, but it wasn’t to paint a mural. She had always had a difficult relationship with her own father, but when he was experiencing a painful and lingering death, she made the three-hour round trip drive every day to spend time with him. She asked Matthew to feed her children and her pet hamster. He agreed. She returned home one night to find that the hamster was dead in its cage and nearly skeletal. Martha asked Matthew if he had fed it at all. He looked up from his newspaper, and spoke with a deliberate tone: “Martha, you never loved your father anyway, so why should I take care of your hamster while you’re in a hospital room waiting for him to die?” He resumed reading.
The marriage continued until 1978, when Matthew had divorce papers served on Martha. She was in her own hospital room having a nervous breakdown when the documents arrived. Before the divorce, my brother Michael and I had been a real team. At seven and four years old respectively, we jumped off of banisters together pretending to be superheroes; we hid dinner peas under the sofa that Martha had built (which had a rise eight inches off the floor); we feigned ignorance together even though those peas were clearly visible to Matthew; when we were upset about minor disappointments, we packed a trunk together and told Martha we were running away; we decided together to stay when she tempted us with molasses cookies, made with our great-grandmother’s special recipe. A shift between us began on the night our parents told us they were getting a divorce.
Anyone who has experienced a divorce has a divorce story. Mine goes like this: Michael and I were watching a Dr. Seuss special, though I kept looking over my shoulder, aware of our parents’ hushed conversation in the dining area. They approached us, sat down and broke the news, assuring us that it wasn’t our fault. Michael turned back to the television and stared silently into the screen. I asked lots of questions and, over the course of the discussion, repeated one question four times to Matthew: “Are you going to stay in Maine?” He answered each time that he would remain until both Michael and I graduated high school, but his eyes became more averted each time he said it. I suspected he was lying. Between questions I looked at Michael, wondering why he wasn’t saying anything.
A couple of days later Michael announced to me, “We have to be better so that Mom and Dad will stay together.” I couldn’t figure out why he would suggest that the problems of these adults were because of something we had done. I thought maybe he had missed some of the conversation because he had turned to the television while I had asked questions. I felt sad for my older brother that he thought this mess was our fault, but I couldn’t bring myself to contradict him. “Okay,” I said.
Despite our best efforts, the divorce was finalized and Martha moved my brother and me to the suburb of South Portland, Maine. She chose the town because of the superior schools, even though it had been a dream of hers to live in the countryside. Matthew moved to a nearby town.
By the time I started elementary school I was aware that there were many religions and beliefs in my family. Matthew seemed most interested in his own supernatural version of Sufism (which he called “the friendly branch of Islam”). Martha alternated between Agnostic and “spiritual but not religious” (although she had a portrait of the Madonna and Child near her bed and occasionally prayed to rosary beads). Her mother, whom we called Tu-Tu, was a Fundamentalist Christian, which meant she took the Bible literally but did not ascribe to any particular denomination. My Uncle Brian and his wife were Baptists. My Uncle Anthony and his wife were Catholic, although his wife was interested in Transcendental Meditation (or TM), much to Tu-Tu’s dismay. My father’s family was made up of Reform and Conservative Jews. There was also a Quaker and an Atheist or two in the mix. I didn’t understand much of what these beliefs meant. All I knew was that each representative wanted their piece of me. The battle for my spiritual well-being had begun.
Chapter 1 (excerpted):
Why He Killed the Mouse
My entire backside was on fire. Just hours earlier, I had left the campsite to pee and now itchy red patches had begun to form between my legs, on my bottom and up my spine. I couldn’t stop scratching. “Dad, what’s wrong with me?” I screamed out in a panic. I exploded out of the tent that I shared with my brother, Michael, and ran to Matthew’s open van, where he was setting up a small wooden and wire contraption the size of an index card.
After inspecting me, he said sympathetically, “Oh Katie. You wiped yourself with a poison ivy leaf.”
“I’ve been poisoned? Am I going to die?” I was six.
“No sweetie. But we’re going to need to get you some calamine lotion.”
As I lie face down in the tent, Matthew spread the lotion on my back. It soothed but did not alleviate the problem. “I still itch.”
“This is the perfect opportunity to use your mind, just like we’ve talked about before.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can use your mind to control the spread of the rash, Katie. You just have to take control of your body and believe that you can do it.”
“Do I need the calamine then?”
“For now, yes. Until you’re able to train your body to heal itself.”
“Would you need the calamine?”
I could hear the smile in his voice. “No. I wouldn’t. But I’ve had a lot of practice.”
I squirmed. “It’s so itchy, Daddy.”
“The sensation of itching is in your mind, Katie,” Matthew said as he spread more of the pink salve on me. “You have control over it. You have the choice as to whether or not you feel discomfort. You can choose to concentrate on the sensation your body is giving your brain. Or you can choose to feel something else. What do you want to choose?”
“I want to choose not to feel itchy.”
“Good. I want you to breathe in and out slowly. In and out.” I followed instructions. “Now as you breathe in and out, I want you to imagine that your whole body is breathing. Every part of your body is taking in oxygen. And as you let out the air, you make the decision not to feel itchy, not to feel irritation of any kind.” After a few minutes he asked, “Do you feel better?”
As I let out a breath, I nodded that I did. I didn’t, but the desire of a child to please a parent far outweighs the most palpable of itches.
When Matthew took us on camping trips or let us visit him at his nearby rental house, his parenting style was based on the premise that all people have a psychic nature and that with special training, a child can harness and build on those abilities. I was a willing participant in the experiment, spending much of my time, energy and emotion in an extreme version of ‘magical thinking.’
According to Matthew, being psychic or telepathic or able to speak with people who have died wasn’t exactly the goal. It was more like a natural byproduct of the kinds of spiritual principles he told me that he had mastered and that I was on my way to learning. To me, however, the idea of having magical powers was the most interesting part of being enlightened. I saw this as my opportunity to be special, and I very much wanted to be special.
Once the calamine lotion dried, I sat up and asked, “What were you doing when I came up to the van?”
Matthew let out a snort, and his face grew hard. “I was setting up a mousetrap.”
My body stiffened. “A mousetrap? Why?”
“There’s a mouse in the van.”
In a strained voice I asked, “And you’re going to kill it?” My palms began to sweat.
“A mouse may not seem like a big deal, Katie, but a little thing can cause a lot of damage.”
“But why do you have to kill it? Why can’t you just shoo it out?”
His tone was firm. “No.”
“Well, can’t we get one of those traps that don’t kill the mouse?”
“Those traps are expensive. I’m not spending money to save the life of a rodent.”
“Well, you can use the allowance money you gave me. I’ve saved all of it from this summer. That’s a dollar a week, and we’ve been here for five weeks already.”
“Please, Daddy, don’t kill it.”
“We’re not discussing it any further, Katie. Now, go help Michael gather some firewood for tonight.”
That night we played the Folded Paper Game, which was really for my benefit as the suffering itchy one, since Michael was never too interested in it. The game was something Matthew had invented. “I’m going to write something down on a piece of paper and then fold it up. Then you’re going to close your eyes, and we’re going to be quiet for a few minutes. Then you’re going to tell me what you see.”
The idea was that by being silent and focusing my breath and mind, I could visualize whatever it was that Matthew had written on the paper. Mostly I didn’t see anything close to what was written down, but that night I saw a forest. When I told Matthew, he excitedly responded, “It’s tree. Look.” I gasped as he unfolded the paper and showed me the word “tree” written in black ink. There was no consideration given to the possibility that I might have been influenced by being in a forest at the time. There was simply the accolade for my success. I was thrilled.
The next morning when I awoke in the tent, my first thought was about the mouse. My second thought was about the itching. I walked quickly to the van to see that Matthew was already awake and up. He had slept in the back of the vehicle, which he had converted into a sturdy bed. “Did you get the mouse?” I asked, worried.
Matthew responded with a deep, aggravated tone. “No. Not yet.”
The next morning was the same. More worry about the mouse, more itching, more annoyance from Matthew.
Then, on the third morning, I awoke with a feeling that was different than worry. It was more like a feeling of inevitable disappointment. There was a lump in my throat, and my chest was tight and achy; it was hard to take deep breaths. I opened the tent and lumbered slowly to the van. As I got closer, Matthew appeared in the doorway, his face bright. In a half-whisper, I asked, “Did you get the mouse?”
“Got ‘em,” he said with a smile.
After a pause I asked, “Can I bury him?”
Matthew responded in a cheery voice. “I threw him out already.”
After a few hours of moping around about the mouse, I decided to look at the bright side. After all, my feeling of dread on that third morning must mean that my psychic trainings were coming along and that, with practice, I could have the same kinds of magical powers Matthew had. Of course, I wanted to be spiritually enlightened too; but the God that I knew was also the one introduced to me by my father. That God could best be described as a sort of genie without a bottle who would give me my world’s desires if I only prayed correctly.
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