Living With Heart
By John Daniel ’70
Rolling out the crust for a sour cherry pie on a recent afternoon, I found myself thinking of my friend John Sterne ’70, who died suddenly last May. I had known him since the early 1960s, when we were seventh graders in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. A pair of Johns, our birthdays five days apart, we were two tall, reticent boys who studied too much.
Sterne was more of a nerd—a skinny, black-haired kid with Coke-bottle glasses who couldn’t get out of his own head. In high school he was the best student in most of his classes. We drank beer, fiddled with his ham radio, and drove our suburban streets, Sterne talking and talking. In 1966, we both found ourselves at Reed, dormmates in Quincy. Like me, Sterne wanted to see the Northwest and put his broken family behind him.
We hit the books and kept our heads above water, Sterne more successfully than I. But sorrows and depression hounded him. His sweet nature shone through, but he was stymied by his obsessive intellectualizing, his awkwardness, his uneasiness with the physical. It didn’t help that his first sexual experience left him with a venereal disease.
Sterne also took LSD. It wakened him spiritually, making him feel for the first time that there might be a God. I had a similar awakening. I remember the two of us standing all night in an overgrown orchard next to the soccer field, blankets around our shoulders, trying to articulate the sacredness we sensed in everything around us.
In 1969, Sterne and I made a cherry pie in a Reedie house on Gladstone. We rolled our crusts directly onto a kitchen table, then had to hold the table upside down and scrape them off with spatulas, pleased with our innovative genius. I had dropped out of Reed by then; Sterne, though soldiering on academically, was using hard drugs. He would rap obsessively like a cerebral Neal Cassady, raggedly splicing structural anthropology with William Burroughs novels with Buddhist and Hindu mythology with the soullessness of American capitalism with his own unhappy childhood.
I’d sit with him all night, listening (more or less). He couldn’t stop. He was a puppet on the strings of his over-firing neurons. This was about oblivion, not religion. Unable to form the relationships he desired, he had set out to quell his desires instead.
Somehow, in 1970, Sterne managed to graduate, an anthropology major under David French and Gail Kelly. It was a remarkable achievement, given how messed up he was, but he wasn’t equipped for the world. He might well have died—he’d come close by overdosing at least once—had he not found a spiritual home in the Self-Realization Fellowship, a Vedic monastic order in Southern California founded by Paramahansa Yogananda. Sterne quit drugs cold and became a renunciant monk, incommunicado.
We in his old Quincy circle joked about busting into the monastery to spring him. But I knew—I suspect we all knew—that Sterne was doing what was best for Sterne.
It was ten years before I saw him again. We sat on a bench in a garden bower at his ashram. His hair had begun to gray and recede, and he had a slight paunch—a meditator’s physique, I kidded him. He told me he lived in a golden cage: very, very difficult to enter and very, very easy to leave. “I want to stay here until I die,” he said.
But in 1987 he did leave, with a passion—he very much wanted to marry—and a vocation. Years earlier he had built a computer for his fellowship, inventing a programmable robot to help him. Now he quickly found well-paying work as a self-taught software engineer. Marriage didn’t come, but Sterne became a warmly sociable man, befriending elderly ranchers, square dancers at senior centers, and several women with whom he regularly hiked the deserts of the Southwest. “Sometimes I feel the weight of my years,” he said, “but when I lift myself off the ground it feels wonderful.”
We saw each other now and then, at Reed reunions and elsewhere. We hiked, we drank (alcohol was the one drug Sterne allowed himself), and we talked. In May 2006, waiting for an elevator at work, he collapsed and never regained consciousness. His death so shocked me that it took days to see the irony. My friend died of an enlarged heart. He also lived by one.
John Daniel ’70 is a poet and memoirist, and author most recently of Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005). He will teach a memoir workshop at Alumni College, Reunions 2007 in June.