“Life is a journey and each of us is a pilgrim on the path to Self-Realization.” This phrase was at the heart of much of what I wrote in explaining the theosophical world-view in my long career as Publicist for the Theosophical Society in England. And looking back – now that I am in retirement – I am starting to appreciate the significance of that statement and what it means for me, personally. Life has been a journey – at times it has been an almighty ‘roller coaster’.
It was, therefore, a long 42 years between my leaving New York City in May 1977 and my return to the ‘Big Apple’ in October 2019. My departure by air from the ‘city that never sleeps’ to somewhat more sedate Paisley in Scotland 42 years earlier was the beginning of what was a planned holiday, which instead resulted in my being domiciled in the UK and undertaking my main life’s work for the TS – spanning 37 years.
The return to North America, in Autumn 2019, was originally planned to make use of a flight from Toronto to Washington DC, which I had I had deferred from May, owing to an infection I had incurred. One of the motivations for visiting ‘DC’ (which I had not previously seen) was to attend a concert of the Rolling Stones of whom I had been a fan since their beginnings in the 1960s. The lecture tour in October evolved from conversations I had with prominent American TS members Kurt Leland and David Bruce, who encouraged me to offer my ‘services’ as a lecturer to organising officers in six cities – Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City and Buffalo.
As a Publicist, I had over the years arranged a number of lecture tours for speakers from India and the USA visiting England. But never, had I been the focus for such a tour. Thus during the Summer of 2019, hardly a day would pass when I didn’t write to some lodge officer, in the American cities where I was to speak, during what was to become a 21-day itinerary.
On the 1st October, I boarded an intercity train from my home in Wickford, Essex heading to Heathrow, then flying on the ‘new world’, arriving some 22 hours later in Windsor, Essex, Ontario, Canada. This replication of place names – taken from the ‘Olde Country’ was just the first of what would be many anomalies and synchronicities on this epic odyssey.
I spent the next morning wandering along the Windsor riverbank – snapping away at views of the skyline of Detroit, just across the river of the same name that marks the Canadian-American border. Then I took a bus through the mile long ‘tunnel’ under the river to the USA to await collection at a local hotel by my host, David Zimmerman. Curiously, Detroit, is actually to the north of Canada. As just one – of many – international collaborations between the two cities, the tunnel is jointly owned and operated by the cities of Windsor and Detroit. The other main crossing, the Ambassador Bridge, is the busiest commercial crossing on the Canada-United States border. With 5.7 million people, Detroit-Windsor is North America’s largest cross-border conurbation. If recognised formally as a single metropolitan area, it would be the 8th most populous on the continent.
In 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the future city of Detroit. During the 19th century, it became an important industrial hub at the centre of the Great Lakes region. The city became the 4th-largest in the nation in 1920, after only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia with the influence of the booming auto industry. In the 1950s, the city was reportedly the richest in the world!
Internationally famous for its musical scene – with many of the biggest ‘guns’ of the 1960sbased in ‘Motown’ – and being the world’s automobile manufacturing centre, less well known is Detroit’s globally unique stock of architectural monuments and historic places.
In 2015, Detroit was named a “City of Design” by UNESCO, the first U.S. city to receive that designation. One of the finest examples of Art Deco, anywhere in the USA, is the Guardian Building – Native American themes are common on both the interior and exterior of the building.
The Detroit Institute of Arts – itself considered perhaps the sixth most significant museum in the country – houses of one of the finest examples of Art Deco painting in the wall murals created by the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. Thanks to the kindness of my host, I was able to view both these ‘jewels’, during my four-day stay.
David Zimmerman also took me to see National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica – a well known Roman Catholic church executed in the lavish zig-zag Art Deco style. Constructed in the 1930s it was funded by proceeds of the radio ministry of the controversial Father Charles Couglin who broadcast from the tower. David tells me that his radio station had a powerful 500,00 watts attenae. As such his ‘sermons’ could be heard all across the United States and parts of Canada. “People from all over sent nickels and dimes taped to 3 by 5 inch cards in envelopes” For a few years, contributions running into thousand of dollars weekly flooded into his bank account.
While in Motor City, I gave two lectures to Detroit Brotherhood Lodge: Theosophy: the Utopian Ideal (on Friday 4 October) and Annie Besant: Diamond Soul (the following morning, Saturday 5 October). The first talk explored the concept of ‘unity as a fact of nature’. The second presentation (which was being given for the first time!) was an overview of the life and work of the organisation’s most dynamic leader and I must credit the authors Kurt Leland and Muriel Pecastaing-Boissiere for allowing me access to their writings – invaluable in researching the topic.
The branch, which was chartered by Annie Besant in 1916, has about 50 active members. They hold public lectures every second Friday with average attendances of 25 to 55 (currently on ‘zoom’). Many of these lectures are later available on the TSD YouTube Channel. Additionally, Detroit Lodge holds monthly study meetings for members and are currently looking at ‘The Etheric Double’ by A. E. Powell. The President of the lodge is Sandy Naimou – who has practised yoga for over 25 years and for the last 7 years has taught the discipline.
David Zimmerman, joined the Society nearly 50 years ago. A Board member of the branch, he is a regular lecturer for the TS, giving talks and leading courses – some in his own home. Additionally, he is the CEO of the EMRI, a non-profit body, working to bring Esoteric Healing to Colleges and Universities in America. He is also a Board member for the Claregate Trust in England. David was Chief Design Sculptor, for over 20 years with General Motors – working on such well-known models as Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile.
Detroit Lodge owns its premises – which it has occupied since the early 1980s. It contains a lecture hall that can comfortably seat 50 and houses a lending and reference library approaching 1000 books, DVDs and CDs (David’s ‘esoteric’ collection in his home is also considerable). The branch is situated in a suburb, Berkley, which is 17 miles north of the city centre.
Previously it rented rooms in the ‘downtown’ area drawing large crowds and featuring the crème-de-la crème of national speakers from the American Section of the Society. As board member Mary Jo Kokochak relates “Detroit was a vibrant and fashionable city, and flourished as the automotive capital of the world. But, as the suburbs expanded, members moved out of the city and fewer people attended meetings. Finally the lodge moved from Detroit but kept its name’.
Janet Kerschner, Archivist at the National Headquarters in Wheaton, (near Chicago) informs me that Motown has been home to 5 other branches. The first Detroit branch lasted from 1897 to 1926. Unity Lodge operated from 1905 -1926. Vivelius Lodge met in the New Thought Church from 1905 – 1915. Sampo Lodge was a Finnish language group meeting from 1910 to 1947. Alcyone Lodge, established in 1911, merged into Vivelius in 1914.
An interesting gem that I learned during this trip was that Henry Ford – the engineer, industrialist, philanthropist and founder of the car company which bears his name – was strongly influenced by Theosophy and was one of its greatest publicists, though not a member. In an interview in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1926, he was asked about his belief in reincarnation. He said “I believe just as much as anything that in olden times – way back yonder – they knew something that we have lost – something of the mystery, the riddle of life. The things that are now the unsolvable mysteries of where we come from before birth and where we are going after death, were known to everyone then”.
Ford was a good friend of Thomas Alva Edison – one of the world’s most prolific inventors and a member of the Theosophical Society in its early days. Unfortunately, many of the records of Detroit Lodge disappeared in a flood many years ago, so we cannot confirm whether either of these distinguished gentlemen signed a Visitors Book. It is likely, though, that they did attend meetings of this or one of the Detroit Lodges in existence at that time.
There are hundreds of public houses in Britain called The Royal Oak, but only three places which bear that name. Four districts in the United States carry the name ‘Royal Oak’ and two of them – the city of Royal Oak and Royal Oak Charter township – are just around the corner from the TS in Detroit. Perhaps this is why I felt some much ‘at home’ in Detroit, as I live on a Royal Oak Drive, in Wickford, the United Kingdom.
After my Saturday morning talk and buffet lunch, David drove me to the airport for a flight to Cleveland the same afternoon. After possibly my shortest ever flight – lasting only about 30 minutes – I arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
Like Detroit, a magnet for the wealthy in its heyday, in 1920 Cleveland was the fifth largest city in the United States, with 800,000 people. Some 50 out of 80 millionaires nationwide had homes there. The city of some 3.5 million nowadays was founded in 1720. By the year 1889 it was the centre of the world’s petroleum industry – which was controlled by John D. Rockefeller, considered to be the wealthiest person ever on the planet, if adjusted for inflation.
All this industrial activity brought with it a heavy dose of pollution for the Cuyahoga (aboriginal word for ‘crooked’) River. It caught fire at least 14 times but made world news headlines in 22 June 1969 when floating pieces of oil slicked debris were ignited on the river by sparks from a passing train. This incident spurred the American environmental movement. Since then, the river has been extensively cleaned up and in 2019, the American Rivers conservation association named the Cuyahoga ‘river of the year’ in honour of “50 years of environmental resurgence”.
Cleveland has the largest performance centre outside New York City and the most concentrated square mile of arts and culture in the country. On a 2 hour walking tour, I took in some of the main sights of the downtown and the adjoining harbour area on the shores of Lake Erie.
Public Square covers 10 acres and was part of the original 1796 town plan. Cleveland’s three tallest buildings face the square. Terminal Tower – at 52 storeys and 235 meters – at the time of its construction in 1930 was the 2nd tallest building in the world. The centre of the square is dominated by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. It commemorates the ultimate sacrifice made many hundreds, hailing from the Cleveland area, who served in the Navy, Artillery, Infantry and Cavalry during the American Civil War.
A short walk away is situated Cleveland City Hall, Cuyahoga County Court and North Coast Harbour – which features a Science Centre, a maritime museum and most famously, the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The latter contains the world’s largest collection of musical instruments and rock and roll artefacts.
The Stones were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2019 Billboard magazine ranked them second in their list of the “Greatest Artists of All Time” based on US chart success. On 11 September 2020, a 1973 re-issue of a 1973 album reached number one on the UK Albums Chart as the Rolling Stones became the first band to top the chart across six different decades.
For those who prefer classical music, there is the celebrated Cleveland Orchestra – In October 2020 the New York Times called it “America’s finest [orchestra], still.”
After my brief introduction to the city centre, it was back to my hotel for lunch and collection by one of the TS lodge members for my afternoon lecture on Atlantis: Greatest Riddle of Mankind. About 20 people came to the presentation – which lasted nearly two hours, including questions. There is enough material to fill an entire weekend as the subject is so vast.
Annie Besant Lodge celebrates its centenary in January 2021. Since 1983, the branch has operated out of a building they own in Parma, some 10 miles north of Cleveland city centre. The lodge last met in the downtown core during the 1960s and ‘70s, when membership numbered over 100.
There are currently about 55 members. In the branch there is a small bookshop and a very large library. With over 3,000 titles it must be one of the largest collections in the American Section of the Society. A significant number are dedicated to the writings of Annie Besant and Edgar Cayce – the latter ‘clairvoyant’ who was a catalyst for me entering on the path of spirituality.
Before the onset of the pandemic, Besant Lodge was running study groups three days of the week – based on the works of Edgar Cayce, Krishnamurti and Joel Goldsmith. It also held weekly Reiki Healing and each month hosted Sunday lectures and Saturday film/meditation sessions. Presentations on angels, astrology and seasonal drumming are also arranged.
The lodge would not function so efficiently without the dedication of a small team of volunteers. Joanne Richter, a well-known local artist, is the current President and has been a member since 1973. She related some of her memories of prominent English TS members who visited the lodge – including former International TS President John Coats, well known English psychic Phoebe Bendit and Dr Douglas Baker, founder of Claregate College in England.
Pat Dubrovic, as Programme Chair, organises and promotes the various events. She worked at the Cuyahoga County Public Library for 38 years eventually retiring as Department Manager in the Administration Building. There she met Carol Marino, who was Children’s Librarian, at the time. Carol Marino and Richard Denson share the very demanding role of librarian for the Annie Besant Lodge. Richard was previously Librarian at the Akron Lodge, where he joined the Society in 1989. In 1998, he transferred to Cleveland Besant Lodge.
Berni Jones, herself a member for over 40 years, has held a number of posts. Born in Dublin, she spent most of her childhood in England, emigrated to Canada in the late 1950s and then arrived in Parma in 1960. She was lodge secretary for a brief period but for the past 10 years has been the official ‘hostess’ – in charge of all aspects of catering. She has had several varied occupations – including comptometer operator in accounting departments, bus conductress and owner of an antique business.
Cleveland has had a number of theosophical branches over the years. Dharma was founded in1888 and dissolved in 1896 after William Quan Judge set up his own ‘rival show’ in America. The Cleveland TS was chartered in 1897 and merged into Besant-Cleveland in1933. Kipina was founded in 1911 and also merged into Besant-Cleveland in 1917. Other lodges have included Forest City (ca1901), Euclid (ca1902), Osiris (ca1909), and Viveka (ca1926).
Josephine Ransom’s colossal work, A Short History of the Theosophical Society (some 500 pages!) mentions lengthy tours in the USA taken by high profile theosophists – including Annie Besant, Charles Leadbeater and Henry Steel Olcott –between 1894 and 1909 but details of the cities mentioned are scant. What we have managed to confirm is that Leadbeater spoke in Toledo in 1900 – the branch functioned between 1892 and 1964. As a young girl the feminist Gloria Steinem sat through many lodge meetings, there.
Olcott, the International President of the TS, lectured in Saginaw, Michigan, Toledo and Cleveland in 1901 and spoke again in Toledo in 1906. Annie Besant undertook long tours to the U. S. in both 1907 and 1909. The Theosophic Messenger magazine reports on a lecture given by Besant in September 1909 on the subject of The Power of Thought, given at the Euclid Avenue Garden Theatre in Cleveland to 1200 persons.
It’s difficult to ascertain exactly which of the principal international speakers, both current and past, within the Theosophical Society visited any of the Detroit Lodges because many of the minutes and historical records of the current branch were discarded after heavy rain flooded the basement where they were stored. We do know that Annie Besant spoke to one of the Detroit branches on her 1909 tour and Alan Senior, an artist and former Editor of the Scottish theosophical magazine, Circles, as part of a tour of the US in April 1999 spoke in Detroit, as well as in Ann Arbor. There was so much theosophical activity in Michigan and Ohio, up until 50 years ago, that both states warranted their own federation.
Both in Detroit and Cleveland, I met nothing but kindness and generosity. The audiences appeared to be appreciative of my presentations and it would be my pleasure and privilege to return to speak to such lovely people, again.
The next stop on my 21-day itinerary was Philadelphia. As mentioned at the outset of this article, ‘Life is a journey’ and a bit similar to the Thames in London, it twists and turns and certainly my trip to Philadelphia was far from straightforward.
It had very little in common with the original itinerary as we shall read in the next episode of my American Odyssey in Hermes V.
Watch this space