His earliest memory is made of soft brown herringbone. He was 7 and his father took him to Brooks Brothers to buy him his first suit. Short pants and shoes from J. J. Slater.Outward signs of inward grace; they marked a passage.
He was from a world where the elements of life combined in careful harmony; he was born of Smith and Yale and lived in the Upper East Side and saw the sun slant through the trees of Central Park in the company of his nurse.
His manners gleamed like the silver service. He reserved his respect for authority and money. They were totems that demanded discipline but defined themselves clearly; religion, lacking this quality, was a social obligation, a dry Presbyterianism that offered no comfort.
He went to dancing school and Deerfield, spent the summers on Long Island. He met a girl there.
He sauntered through scented evenings at Yale; he found his place among the small configurations of the sort of people he had always known. He went to war after his sophomore year, found a friend in a longshoreman, watched people die.
When it was over, he came back to graduate and to marry the girl who had loved him since she was 14, a girl who went to Farmington and Bennington and wept for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. And moved with him to Washington when he joined the CIA.
The man telling this story is 58 now, a tall man in a white Sikh's turban and blue jeans and his self-assurance is like a river carrying his story along. He talks among the plain rooms of a farmhouse in the Blue Ridge, values and vocabularies away from the man he once was. "The effort I put out to maintain my image of myself was extraordinary," says John L. Koehne Jr., president of the Dharma Self-Help and Analytic Center. "I had to get control of my life. I realized I had been living in a box all my life and I had to take the top off.
Long before the top came off, he saw the CIA in a different light. They were special, the men who joined the Agency in the early years of '47 and '48. They brought with them their breeding and their background and a sense of idealism tempered in the Second World War. "I was awfully good at what I did," says Koehne. "Our sense of self-worth was measured by grade and how fast we were promoted through the ranks."
Eventually he was in charge of the division concerned with East European affairs and he prided himself that the Agency kept its head despite military bombast and public hysteria during the cold war.
It was thrilling up through Kennedy. After that, the work became routine for him. By then, the artifacts of life had been set into place -- the home in McLean, the well-tended garden, the three children, sullen, as is the custom among adolescents in the suburbs, the occasional ennui, the tolerable knowledge of fine wines.
And who would have guessed that his life could change so completely, that after 46 years the steel in his life could melt or that it would. In 1967 he went to an encounter group at Harper's Ferry, urged on by his wife, who thought that his perspective on the world was too circumscribed. He sat with five others in a circle of straight-backed chairs. When it was over the group leader said, "John, you're surrounded by golden light," and when it was over he came home crying, for the first time since he was a child.
He grew his hair long and searched the city for a tailor who would cut his suits to fit the defiance he felt. He fended off the Company shrinks. He went to more encounter groups, large groups, small groups, advanced growth groups, and so did his wife.
A yellow submarine surfaced on the wall of the house in McLean. They flew a peace flag, turned down dinner invitations. A giant cardboard figure of Ringo sprouted on the manicured lawn.
They prepared themselves for the final break. They decided to make it into a ceremony, the formalized finish of the people they once were. They called their children into the living room -- their children, who kept urging them to drop out but in the end raised howls of protest when they saw what their parents were doing. There, in front of their anguished eyes, the parents held up the credit cards, and one by one, they cut up the precious plastic.
It was a peculiarly American odyssey, this trip down the road to self-revelation. It is an American birthright, it seems, to spin a chrysalis in cultural upheavals and emerge a new man, to find the way through the wilderness and be born again.
In the '60s, most of those who left were young, and many of those who left came back, and the sound of the memories is often sad, wind chimes blowing back a breeze from the Age of Aquarius.
"Maybe," says Ana Koehne, "we're ahead of time. And maybe we're just out of step."
She is thin and pale, her angular features softened by her smile. Her long hair flows down her back like a silver stream. She wears a long denim skirt and a white Indian shirt over a white turtleneck. There is grace in her eyes, and in her voice there lingers the crisp accent and clean consonants of a woman once described as straight out of Peck & Peck. But that was back before she changed her name from Nancy, which she did to put her husband on notice that he was not the only one who was changing.
Now they are framed not only by the Blue Ridge but by the lives they left behind and the ones they are leading now. Brochures for the center offer courses in Kundalini Yoga, massage and polarity balancing, something Ana describes as "more of an Eastern belief system than a Western scientific approach."
There are not, however, enormous crowds of people flocking to Dharma's door for enlightenment. Ana's women group has only three participants, instead of the eight or 10 she'd hoped for. "I think there's quite a lot of little timid country ladies around who are afraid I'm going to analyze them," she sighs.
Her husband taught massage to a class of nurses in nearby Charlottesville recently, but his lay counseling sessions are tapering off now from the four or five clients a week he had earlier in the year.
Classes are over now, until January. Work will concentrate on the farm itself, on chopping wood and mending fences and doing all the other physical exercises that bear results more immediately tangible than spiritual ones.
So far, says Ana Koehne, the center "is a long way from the ideal. We may decide on a slightly different direction as time goes by."
They talk about who they were and at times they sound as self-conscious as school children reciting a lesson they haven't quite mastered. "The blocks," Ana will say as her husband talks about his lack of childhood memories, "are quite severe."
"Aren't you projecting?" he will ask.
"Everything is projection," she will answer, and, the catechism completed, they continue.
It was a different litany during the CIA years: He remembers the Hungarian revolution, the reports coming in every six hours . . . how it felt to try to have a handle on what was happening in Russia . . . the Polish revolt . . . the time the Germans were trying to close the Autobahn -- he stops himself. "I'm not sure anybody knows about that yet" . . . and always the comforting assurance that "in a world where information was power, we were supposed to be the most informed."
The changes began, he thinks now, the year before the crucial encounter group, when he accepted a one-year sabbatical from the Agency. Suddenly he was "less in the 9-to-5 mold. I began to see other possibilities."
Meanwhile, his children were changing. "And it was beginning to get to me," John Koehne says now. "They were throwing away all the East Coast WASP social values and living in the here and now."
When their son came back buoyant from an encounter group run by a family friend, Koehne was convinced to try it as well. "You have no idea how shut in I was," he says. "I didn't realize how much I cut myself off when what I thought was doing was being very macho, the hail fellow well met. But it was a mask. I was frightened."
Afterward, he was euphoric. But for Ana, it came as a terribly ironic blow. He said to me, 'Now that I've had this experience, I can no longer talk to you.'
"He'd say things like, 'I'm living in the present moment'," remembers Ana, "and I'd say, 'I don't know what I'll be doing or what I'll be being,' and I'd freak out, I'd always counted on my marriage, and he was saying things like, 'What is marriage? What are children? What is work? I asked him for six weeks. I said, 'Don't do anything drastic for that long'."
She began to go to groups herself and communication resumed, but conversations with their friends dropped off. "In retrospect I was pretty evangelical about what was happening to me," John says. He remembers a Christmas party given by a colleague the last year in McLean, the blank stares and nervous eyes that greeted his attempts to explain. At work, at the Agency, his supervisor would come down from time to time and ask, "Is everything all right, John?"
Everything wasn't. "I felt like I was leading a double life," Koehne says."There was the life I led at the Agency and my other life.I decided I had to get out."
In 1969, they packed up a camper and headed, eventually, west. Koehne had resigned from the Agency June 15; with two weeks of vacation time, that meant his service ended with the fiscal year and the sense of symmetry appealed to him.
They wanted an "open-ended piece of time," without the tyranny of a destination or a deadline. They went up to Maine for a group taking place up there, and when their youngest called from California and through her tears told them it was an emergency and she needed them, they told her they would all meet at 3 p.m. in three weeks at the information desk at Yellowstone Park.
For Nancy Koehne that decision was a small triumph along the way toward Ana. "If I had been really traditional, I would have dropped everything and gone to her," Ana said. "But I was trying to break out of that role."
The Koehnes went to California, looking for a "growth laboratory" in which to continue their studies in the human potential movement. Esalen seemed "too sexy"; they landed instead at a now defunct center called Kairos.
It is hard now, after est and winning through intimidation and all the cultural cartwheels the '70s have seen, to remember what it was like when the idea of exploring one's self seemed as adventurous as a trek up Kilimanjaro. But Ana remembers. At Kairos they were working with videotape and everyone was supposed to say something about themselves for 12 minutes.
After so many growth groups, Ana "felt like an old hand by that time," and she volunteered to go first. They asked her if she wanted them to play it back and she said yes and first she laughed and then she cried. The woman on the tape was a cultural sterotype, equipped with all the accents and gestures of the upper middle class.
"I had always thought of myself as an ordinary American woman," she says. "It was a terrible blow to come across so Peck & Peck. I didn't think of myself that way at all. Because of my confidence in my background, I had always assumed that everyone was like me. It didn't occur to me that I was different."
Moments like that, when their laughter mingled with their tears, were the milestones, the proof that the act of self-severance from their former lives had been worth it.
At Kairos, they were asked if they would like to participate in a 10-week residency program. Nancy worried about all the reasons why they couldn't do it, and Ana now remembers proudly, how she learned instead to think of all the reasons why they could.
The children felt abandoned when they said they weren't coming back. "We didn't throw our children out of the house or into jail," says Ana Koehne. "In 1969, that was something."
Eventually their children came to be with them along with a number of the other children wandering the country in torn jeans and with an idealism that has hardened in hindsight to aching naivete.
The center's owners asked the Koehnes to stay on as managers. They did, for six months, but then they decided to leave. "we wanted to put people in touch with who they were and what they wanted to be," John Koehne says. "But people didn't grow, they had to come back and back, like it was a fix."
Meanwhile, they tried to cope with the limitations of liberation. "There was a new oppression," Ana Koehne recalls. "You had to be hip and groovy. I was so loose, how was I supposed to know what was right? I wanted to be this new woman."
But the new woman was confronted with a marriage so open, at least in theory, that it was practically transparent. "I still don't know how much of what John was talking about was fantasy and how much he actually did," Ana says. "And I'm not asking now. But I knew I needed advice on what to do. I just wasn't happy with the situation as it was."
She went to an Indian yogi, who told her to decide what she could and could not accept in the marriage and to wait three days before talking to her husband.
She remembers it so vividly, how frightened she was that her marriage might be ending, how the specter of her own mother loomed up and how she didn't want to be like her, the breathless realization that "I was the uncommitted one, I was the one with fantasies," that she would have to give them up if she were to ask John to do the same.
And she remembers how nervous she was when finally she told John she had something important to talk with him about, and she remembers the tree stump where they talked and the time of day it was and how John told her that she had always been first and always would be.
"I don't remember that conversation," John Koehne says. He says it nonchalantly and with no apology at all.
"I'm suprised," says Ana Koehne. "To me, it was the most important conversation of our marriage." She turns to a visitor. "He must have blocked it out."
In 1971, they came back to McLean to sell the house, the one they still drive by occasionally as if it were a tombstone, testimony to a former life. They got a good price for it then ("It would be an absolute gold mine now," says Ana, "but I mustn't think about that."), and set out to look for land where John could "get on with my vision."
They looked in New Mexico, but the landscape didn't look enough like New England for John, whose vision did not include radical changes in geography. They settled instead near Mendocino, where they wanted to establish a community of like-minded souls leading, as Ana Koehne says, "the best possible life."
The best possible life was being supported in a most predictable manner. One of Ana's ancestors had had the great good fortune to make a mint manufacturing music boxes. "Of course, we've been very lucky," says Ana Koehne. "We couldn't have done what we did otherwise."
"We would have done it differently," says her husband.
"No," says Ana, "I don't think we would have done it." tIn 1975, they went to India, to the Golden Temple of the Sikhs. In Mendocino, "people had not exactly been flocking to us in droves," according to Ana, and the Sikh teacher Yogi Bajan told them that if they did 40 days of service in the temple there, their destiny would change.
"He turned to me," Ana recalls, "and said, 'You will pay for this,' and as it happened, I was expecting a check in the mail for thousands of dollars. And so I thought, 'Why not?'"
Why not indeed? The whole family went to India: John and Ana; their daughter Catherine -- who by this time was Mhal Akbar ("the great undying one") -- and her husband; their son John and his wife Brooke; Priscilla and her husband Tarn Taran ("he who leads people across great waters") and Mhal's newborn child.
Ana loved the certainty that came with "living what I talked about." Together the family would rise at 3 a.m. and take a dip, as was the custom, in the cold waters of the Tank of Nectar in the temple, which, since it is only cleaned once every 50 years, was its own exercise in self-abasement. Then they would go to the temple flower-seller and get the key to the closet where the brooms made from bundles of sticks were kept. And with these they swept the marble floor.
They swept, and through sweeping tried to clear a path to the secret of themselves. Ana endured the rain of abuse from the Sikh women who seemed to criticize the very move of this earnest American woman who tried so hard to "sweep the temple right" -- as if the way the dirt was cleaned reflected her self-worth the way her housekeeping had in the home in McLean.
Listening to herself tell the tale, Ana smiles ruefully. "After 10 years, I'm still saying it, I'm still saying, 'Ana, you're not doing it right.'"
John Koehne recalled the pride he felt at the good job he was doing, as proud as if it were a report on an operation in Poland, and remembers how furious he was to find a 65-year-old Indian woman sweeping right behind him. And thinking, "This is MY place to sweep." And realizing how "my ego was disrupting my life."
It all sounds very humbling, but Koehne flinches with distaste. "It wasn't humble. I don't even like to think about it being humble. My ego is just not ready to accept that word."
Still the experience changed them both. Ana finally "felt perfectly comfortable saying the name of God where before it had always seemed so gauche." John began to realize the "difficulty of letting myself evolve, not making myself evolve, I feel -- "
"You imagine," interrupts Ana.
"I believe," says John carefully, "that you can't change a person, you can only open them up to what the changes are."
They came back from India and John Koehne thought the whole family should get involved in a project together, that if they did this, then they all could work out their entire karma in this lifetime. They looked for land, found it in the Blue Ridge. But in the end the family scattered like dry leaves in a dying light.
Their son lives in California, he's into real estate. Mhal and her husband live in California too -- "they manage," is what her parents say when asked what the couple's occupations are. Priscilla and her husband live on the farm. They have turned out, it seems, pretty much like anybody's children, variations on the themes of pride and pain.
And still, it seems, it hasn't happened -- they have not heard the click of the tumblers falling into place, opening the lock on their true selves. Salvation is ever elusive.
Now Ana is thinking of adopting the sari of a Sikh woman. Perhaps the answer, in the end, still lies in appearances. "I'm hoping," she says, "that by changing the way I look, and by looking odd, I will feel more holy, more spiritual. Sometimes," she says, "it's hard.It's not that I'm running out of patience, and I know that I'm a process, but . . ." But there is a dry laugh. "I keep thinking that tomorrow the scales will fall from my eyes."
And John Koehne finds that he has "this problem in making a commitment. There are so many useful ways to make an input; I haven't been able to decide what it's going to be. I have to sit down and say, 'This is what I've learned, this is what I am, this is what I want to do.' I haven't done that yet. But I'm clear that there is a pattern and a purpose to what I do, and that sooner or later I'll be clued into it."
The sky outside their door is clear now too, and they are silhouetted in the fading light -- against the mountain and its lengthening shadows, and against the choices that poise them between redemption and regret.