Tag Archives: Hindu

The Courage of Immigrants

Standard

Today while having my nails done by one of the many Korean women working at my neighborhood salon, I realized that in the year that I have been patronizing the place, I’ve rarely engaged any of them in much conversation. I have assumed that it would be challenging due to a language barrier but the more I visit them, the more it becomes apparent that most of them are more fluent in English than I had realized. I had based my assumption on the fact that they converse with one another in their first language but until this day it had slipped my notice how easily they transitioned to English to speak to their customers.

These ladies have been a source of comfort from the first time I went in when I was a fresh arrival to Pennsylvania from Missouri in the harsh weather of last year’s February. I tend to fail to call for an appointment, opting instead to walk in. More often than not, I am led to the chair of a very sweet natured woman named Kelly. All of the ladies practice almost the same techniques and sequences of artfully making my hands presentable for serving passengers from silver trays.  One at a time the hands are prepared and nails built and polished and then as they dry under the light, my lady comes around the table to stand behind me and treats me to an abbreviated chair massage. I could fall asleep right now just thinking of the strength in their petite little hands as they squeeze the tension from my shoulders and upper arms.

I have just returned from a short visit home to Missouri. It took only one day of travel, maybe five hours total flight time making it a relatively simple trip and yet I bawled as though I had moved to the other side of the world. My Korean nail ladies actually did leave their families in another hemisphere and across the border from an insane dictator who continues to separate loved ones, subjects millions to famine and threatens missile launches. What they must be feeling when they see these issues on the news! In my homesickness I watch for weather systems that pass through the Ozarks; these ladies are watching for war for it frequently appears imminent. I study the multiple colors pixelating on a looping radar image for a tornado that doesn’t spawn. They go to bed hoping to not wake up to word of a nuclear weapon having found its way to Seoul.

This brought to mind all the courageous people that I have encountered in my work who have left me awestruck. As a flight attendant for a prestigious fleet of private jets, I am frequently in close quarters with the world’s economic movers and shakers, professional athletes, and celebrities—even former presidents. These people are constantly bombarded with public accolades to which the rest of us are simply voyeurs in a tabloid culture. However, once a figure such as this comes aboard my plane and we get past our introductions and the safety briefing, a good deal of the formality weakens. A short way into an especially long flight, after it has become apparent that we will be sharing a toilet for the next twelve hours, we usually ease into a tepid familiarity.

It is then that I see that the celebrity (actor, athlete, and business leader) is often desensitized to the compliments and wonder that their adoring fans feel toward them. Some collapse in the relief that comes from knowing that they can shed the Hollywood, Wall Street, or Washington facade once they hear that boarding door close. Others see their travel time as a gift whose greatest value lies in the opportunity to peruse iPads, laptops, and reams of paperwork that hold their next projects. It is certain that many grow numb at the sight of their faces on the magazine covers week after week. Of course, there are a number of them who have gone down the expected path of having lost all touch with reality and are the very definition of the demanding diva. There truly is a select few who couldn’t squeeze a tear of humility if their lives depended on it. But none of these individuals are in the collection of encounters that I find most memorable. What I cannot erase from my mind though are the countless individuals that will never be famous yet the stories of their lives are burned into my thoughts.

Nockie

I met Nockie when he picked me up in his Anchorage based taxicab.  He was from Warsaw, Poland and moved to Alaska twenty years ago but his wife and family remain in their homeland and are not interested in immigrating. He tries to go home once or twice a year and sees the whole thing in very simple terms.

He said, “It works. I don’t want to live there again and she doesn’t want to come here.” But they consider themselves still very married to one another.

Jean

In LA I seem to meet a lot of Russian or Ukrainian cab drivers. In New York, I would say that the majority that I have met have been from India and Pakistan. I had a wonderful conversation in Dallas between Love Field and DFW with a gentleman who had a gorgeous silver Lincoln town car, although it smelled too strongly of his cologne. He had such an aura of pristine professionalism about him that had I been charged with arranging transport for members of a royal family, I would have been comfortable calling upon him. His name was Jean and he was from Mozambique but had grown up in Ethiopia where his father was named an ambassador.

John

I often recall the town car driver that picked me up at the Philadelphia terminal and took me to the tiny private airport at Morristown, NJ. He struck up a conversation and I eventually asked him where he was from. He looked at me with a broad smile through the rear view mirror and said, “I want you to guess!”

Priding myself on having a bit of a knack to pin a person’s culture down, I took a few seconds to consider his build, which was slight but healthy. His skin tone was dark but had more olive undertones than brown so I ruled out India or Pakistan. His features seemed a bit stronger than the Turkish I had met and he was a little darker than Greek. His eyes were black and almond shaped, so they did not seem to place him of Southeast Asian heritage. His hairline was recessed, but not receding and his hair was coarse and slightly wavy but cut in flattering layers that most American men would have used product on to tame the frizzies and give it that “wet” look. He had a slightly prominent nose and chiseled jaw line. I narrowed the possibilities down to East Africa and guessed, “Ethiopia?”

John’s eyes grew big and he looked up at me again and said, “You are good! I am a black Jew from Ethiopia!”

Well, that just opened the floodgates of interest. At home on my bedside table was  Graham Hancock’s book on Biblical archaeology, “The Sign and the Seal”, in which he examines the popular theory that the Ark of the Covenant is in a church in Ethiopia and under sacred guard by a sect of African Jews called the Fallashas. John said that he is actually of another ethnic sect but he was familiar with the book and that, “Oh, yes! The Ark is in fact there. It is in the Holy of Holies and only the highest priest is allowed into its presence.”

We chatted throughout the entire drive and I will always regret not having the presence of mind to ask for his card so that we could keep in touch. This was the kind of chance meeting I would have loved to continue one evening over a traditional dinner of his childhood cuisine. John from Ethiopia.

Tahir

During a stay in the Washington, DC area, chauffer named Tahir transferred me to a different hotel when the one I had been staying in was overbooked for the night. He was very well dressed in what appeared to me a tailored suit of expensive fabric and his car matched that style. The rosary hanging from the rear view mirror and the Arabic emblem attached to it told me that he was Muslim. I surmised from his looks that he was either Indian or Pakistani. Political strife between the neighboring nations can lead to offense when they are confused with one another but with the history of the two having been one country and the marriages that occurred during that time, it is often difficult to distinguish just by outward appearances.

Tahir and I started talking and he said he was from India.

“Oh, my favorite place in the world!” And we were off.

He asked if I had been there so I gave him a brief about the three months in 1996 during which I worked Haj flights for Air India out of New Delhi. I told him that I had been so smitten with the experience that it led to a few fortunate return trips as well as having studied the history and culture in depth since returning. I caught him stealing more glances at me in the mirror, sizing me up, figuring me out, this lily white American woman who claims to have such affection for his people and faith. I wanted him to drive away from me knowing that not all Westerners think all Muslims are sleeping terrorists.

He must have decided that both of us viewed the other as harmless for he felt comfortable enough to ask if it would be okay if he stopped and picked up his cousin who was taking over his driving route for the rest of the night. A request like that may have shot up a red flag to someone else who didn’t share the openness toward Indians that I do but I thought nothing of it. He was known by the concierge of the high end hotel I had just stayed in, and being somewhat familiar with the work habits of my international drivers, this did not strike me as anything out of the norm. Limousines, town car drivers and taxi cabs are populous in Washington traffic; one strike of misbehavior by a driver and he’ll never carry anyone again from those lucrative locations.

He pulled into a townhouse community and we picked up his cousin. He looked a little surprised to see a passenger in the back seat and Tahir quickly explained that I had agreed to the diversion and Abrim turned around and we began to chat.

I said, “So, you’re from India?”

“No, I’m from Pakistan.”

Then he and Tahir exchanged facial expressions that shouted, “You idiot! I had told her we were from India?” and, “You idiot! Why didn’t you tell me that you had told her we were from India?”

Ooops. It quickly dawned on me that they were both Pakistani nationals, possibly not related at all, and that poor Tahir had purposely wanted me to think they were from India for the US obviously has a much better relationship with it than Pakistan. The time of this incident was shortly after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden which in turn gave rise to the accusations that Pakistan had been sheltering him and his cell.

I felt terribly sorry for them both and wanted to immediately put them at ease and change the trajectory of the conversation.

“Oh, okay, so Tahir is from India and you’re from Pakistan. It’s nice that you were able to come here to the US and work together.”

They looked at each other again and it appeared that there was an unspoken understanding among the three of us. It made no difference to me whether they were from India or Pakistan; I was comfortable with them either way.

We talked about their country; the food, the heat and monsoons they had endured, and the beauty of the mountainous Kashmir. The region is a source of a volatile border dispute between India and Pakistan which is unfortunate. I have not had the opportunity to travel there because of the political strife but it is the state that the Mogul emperors chose to build their summer homes. The climate of the altitude is a pleasant respite of lower humidity and cooler temperatures. Aesthetically its views rival those in the Alps of Switzerland and Austria with the dark snow tipped peaks jutting into the sky the clearest hue of azure one could ever find. Bright green valleys littered with flowers in every color imaginable yield the feeling of having stepped into an illustrated children’s book. The enormous bougainvillea bushes aflame in glorious pink and purple blossoms cascade ancient stone walls and along the rolling hills; it is no small wonder that Kashmir was the original Shangri-la.

I imagined that at some point one or both of them had endured a terse event of at least profiling and racism or something even more sinister that made them feel forced to lie about their nationalities. What a shame that they live in one of the most multinational areas of our country and they still have such a fear of what will happen if someone finds out where they are from. My heart teetered between compassion for them and the insults that they must so often face and then anger at the closed minded prejudice that compels me to be on constant ambassador duty, coming behind and cleaning up the wounds left by ignorant arrogance. I may sound naïve, and to another person their behavior would reek of suspicion, but to me they were nothing less than courteous and professional and seemed to enjoy the drive once engaged in conversation that showed a genuine interest in their well being.

I was dropped off at the entrance to my new hotel and bid Tahir and Abrim goodnight. A couple of days later I was able to call Tahir for another ride, this one to the airport to go home. There was the possibility that he would send another driver for the job but I was pleased to see him come through the door and offer to load my bags. It would only be about a half hour’s drive but it was a half hour that I had to once again engage in conversation that inspired me and hopefully reassured him. This time I asked him about one of my favorite activities in his culture: smoking hookah pipes. He looked into the mirror at me and his eyes were wide.

“You smoke shisha?”

I have never been a cigarette smoker and frankly, even the slightest hint of the smoke turns my stomach sour and initiates a headache. Shisha tobacco is delightful though. It is regular black tobacco but it is diluted with molasses and can be found in the flavor of just about any fruit and gives off a warm, sweet aroma that reminds me of the days in which my father was a pipe smoker.

I brought two pipes home from Saudi Arabia, one of which I almost never got back from my stepfather as he came to enjoy the occasional light up out on the porch in the evenings. Hookah pipes are basically water bongs not unlike those sold in head shops in the US. There is a large glass base that is filled with water and through the top of that is inserted the brass pipe that seals the mouth of the base with a rubber gasket. High up on the brass fixture sits a small round clay dish with tiny holes punctured through it and it is in this dish that the shisha is placed and mashed down. Tin foil is then spread across the shisha and small pieces of charcoal are set on the foil and lit. The hoses are attached to outlets from the brass fix near the mouth of the vase and to smoke the pipe you suck on the mouthpiece of the hose, drawing the heat from the charcoal pieces down through the tobacco, through the holes in the clay dish. The shisha is properly heated and ready to be enjoyed when you see smoke in the vase and the water is bubbling with each inhalation. I found that getting a pipe started can be quite challenging and often requires a regular smoker to draw that heat all the way from the top of the pipe down through the glass and into the hoses.

I told Tahir that most of my friends who smoke cigarettes claim that the shisha tobacco has no effect on them but to me as a non-smoker, it may as well be marijuana. One day while I was living in Saudi, a small group of our pilots and flight attendants decided to treat ourselves to an evening out and we chose to go to the Jeddah Sheraton for dinner. It was a lovely evening at a table outdoors next to the swimming pool.  We dined on fine Arab cuisine, a welcome change from the roasted chicken and biryani rice plates we regularly feasted on from a stand around the corner from our villas that we had come to refer to as “road kill”.

After dinner we indulged in the pipes. A sweet young server was our “shisha boy” and he outfitted our pipes with the tobacco and charcoal and got those all started for us with a few strong draws into his lungs. They were passed around and everyone sampled the different flavors. Two hits and I needed a couch.

Tahir laughed at me.

“No, really,” I said. “We had our own pipes at the villas by this time and had smoked them occasionally with the mash we got at the pipe store and I would feel a little relaxed but mainly just enjoyed the flavor. I don’t know what the Sheraton shisha had in it but they were not shopping at the same place I did. Nothing looked any different; colors didn’t look any brighter. I just felt stoned off my butt and sat and stared into space. Man, that was a fun time.”

The conversation probably left me a besmirched woman in Tahir’s opinion. His brow never really relaxed from the arch that marks an expression of mile surprise after that and he continued to look as though he really wasn’t sure what to think of me. It probably was rooted in his being used to seeing American women doing whatever we want to do in our culture but to imagine me participating in an activity so Arab, so much closer to his own culture—and boldly doing so—seemed to leave him a tad puzzled.

Mo

Today I rode with Mo from my Woodland Hills hotel to the Los Angeles Airport. He had the dark skin and features that I recognized from India and since I was still working on this piece I immediately engaged him in conversation for the hour’s drive.

Mo was not from India though. He was from Sri Lanka. He had been in LA for about five years now and started working at a gas station but found his niche as a chauffer for one of the regular customers he met there. I asked him how he came to the States; how did he pick up and leave everything he knew in Sri Lanka and how did he know he would like it here.

“In Sri Lanka life is not good. The war is over, the violence is over but it is very difficult to make living. In one month in Sri Lanka a man make something like, ah, two hundred dollar. It is very bad. The president, he stop the war but he take all money. He give jobs to his family, all his family have jobs and he pay them with tax but regular people, they no have food some.”

As Sri Lanka is so close in proximity to India, I have watched over the years as the Tamil Tigers wreaked havoc on the people. They tore the country apart with guerilla warfare no different from the terror in any other war torn country. It is peaceful now for the most part. The primary issues that remain a hardship are that the governor who put down the Tamil Tiger rebels is absconding with all the international aid pouring in. Mo said that goods are taxed in an abhorrent manner; the sales tax on an automobile is two to three hundred percent of the value of the vehicle itself.

“So, Mo, it is expensive to live in LA. Even with the better income here, it is still worth it to have left home?”

“Oh, yes. You see, I may make two thousand US dollar here in one month. I pay about nine hundred rent and have a roommate. That leaves me still with one thousand to send home to help. I am supposed to get green card in one month, two maybe. Then some family can come and I can visit home and come back. It is better in Sri Lanka but still much rebuilding to do and the government, they get say one million in aid and they put two hundred thousand to the people and keep the rest.”

As is clearly the case with most of the foreign aid the US is spilling out all over the world. We’re certainly not seeing any improvements in the lives of Koreans or Egyptians.

Mo said he works seven days a week and his hours vary between time still filling shifts at the gas station and driving clients. He will drive when he has a job and then if he has a few hours between transports, he goes to work at the station. I pressed him for more details about how he came to the US and put his life together.

“I worked for the royal family in Doha, Qatar. They gave me a place to live, cell phone, personal auto, paid for everything. All my salary was mine to keep. But I was on call twenty four hours a day. I had no life. I stayed for two years and then that was it. I met a man who asked if I wanted to go to US and I did so it cost me about ten thousand dollars to move here but I did. I did not have that money at the time so I paid him what I had and have worked to pay the rest off. He helped get paperwork together and get me here.”

Oh, dear.

“Mo, do you ever feel that you have been taken advantage of? Was it worth that much money to come here and pay someone to do these things to get you here? Do you feel safe?”

He thinks. “Mmmm, yes, it is worth it. It is good.”

“How did you get your job? How did you know where to go and who to talk to?”

“I found a restaurant that serves Sri Lankan food and all the workers are Sri Lankan. They help tell me how to get work.”

That made sense; in a new land, seek out your community and follow their lead. Just like our military families that are based overseas, the common nationalities network and find each other so no one feels so far away from home.

“Was it hard for you to learn your way around and how to drive here?”

“No, not really. I drove in Sri Lanka and Qatar. Here is good, you have so many lanes. You can talk on phone, drink coffee while driving. In Sri Lanka you have narrow roads, one lane going the direction and very crowded with cars, bicycles, lorries, motorcycles so you are like this concentrating all time,” and he demonstrated the white knuckle death grip on the steering wheel and straight ahead stare. I laughed and let him know that I had become quite familiar with that type of driving during my travels in India.

We arrived at LAX but were distracted by our conversation and missed my terminal so we had to go all the way around the airport property again. I was curious to know what faith Mo believes but didn’t want to ask outright so I instead asked what the population in Sri Lanka follows. He said it is mostly Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. That didn’t narrow it down for me much. He had not taken the bait when I mentioned India so I doubted he was Hindu. He confirmed this when I showed him my little Ganesh statue I was traveling with.

“What religion do you like?” he asked me.

“I was raised Christian but I love studying all the major religions. While living in Saudi I tried to learn as much as I could about Islam, India interested me in Hinduism, and I’m somewhat familiar with a bit of the Jewish faith.”

“You know what I do not like about the Hindu? I cannot get the animal gods. I no pray to monkey and animals,” he said. “And the lady with the eight arms-it is crazy!”

“Yes, I understand. I like the philosophy of Hinduism, or maybe it is the Vedic teachings that I identify with. I love the stories that the deities convey but, yeah, I have a hard time really getting them as Divine. I would like to learn more about Buddhism. I went to Sarnath in India where he preached his first sermon.”

‘Buddhism is peace. Everything about it is just nice.”

I gather that Mo is more than likely Buddhist.

Inspired

John the black Ethiopian Jew in Philadelphia, Tahir and Abrim the Pakistani Muslims in Washington, and Mo the Sri Lankan Buddhist in Los Angeles. They all grew up in oppressive hardship as boys and left homes that have since erupted in horrifying episodes of war and violations of the most basic of human rights. The gaps between them and their families is greater than many of us could ever imagine. To think of leaving everything familiar, everything I have been socialized to feel as right, comfortable and complete is incomprehensible. I love my vacations that allow me to do just that but I am often just as pleased to return to my mundane routine after they end. These people that I have met will not be doing that in a matter of two or three weeks. They literally left behind the only lives they had known because the optimism of a better permanence was indisputable, no matter how great the sacrifice.

They undertook the endeavor fully aware that they may never again see many of their loved ones and may never revisit their childhood haunts. The future will be filled with a reinvention of themselves and a complete redesign of their identities. Boxed mixes of macaroni and cheese may become as monotonous to them as sitting in a field sucking the juice out of raw sugar cane once was. This is what I find the most awe inspiring about my immigrant friends: the strength to allow the familiar to become out of reach and the new to become genuinely familiar.

The Philosophy of the Vedas

Standard

When my affinity for India inevitably comes up in numerous conversations, one of the most common quips heard from fellow arrogant, insensitive Americans is, “Don’t order a burger!” It’s routinely followed by chuckles and yuck-yuck in the crowd to stroke the ego of the guy wanting to pretend he’s the first to blurt out such wit. But then the laughter dies down and as everyone shakes their heads at how a culture could shun such fine cuisine, the question arises: Why? Why do they hold cows to be holy?

Hinduism is little examined or understood on much more than a shallow level in the West. The depths generally extend only to the comfort of saying a few “Namastes” and Oms” in yoga classes full of soccer moms and frustrated middle aged women who have little more to do with their time than blog daily about coffee. It all ties in with the misconception that all Hindus are strict vegetarians and go to great lengths to avoid stepping on a bug for fear that it may have been his mother in another life. Most people  would be quite taken aback to learn that in the Vedas, to which Hindu traditions are strongly linked, animal sacrifice was a frequent occurrence but even more surprising, human sacrifices were not unheard of. So where did the contrast come into play? Where did the culture change from one of ritual bloody offerings to one that is associated with a strong version to killing animals?

There are numerous mentions of live sacrifices in ancient Hinduism.  The most valuable one was of course the human sacrifice, the purusha-medha. Whoever commissioned this and paid the Brahmin priests to perform it was said to be as divine as the Prajapati, a name for the Creator. The most common offering was the goat. The following excerpt from the Brahmanas as translated by Klaus Klostermaier explains:  “When the devas had killed a man for their sacrifice, that part of him which was fit to be made an offering went out and entered a horse. Thence the horse became an animal fit to be sacrificed. From the horse it went into the ox, from there into the goat. In the goat it remained for the longest time, therefore the goat is best fitted for sacrifice.”

How this sequence came to be is not explained further but one may assume that it was a bit convenient for the goat to be the sacrifice of choice for they were less expensive and plentiful. Oxen, with their mass would have been a logically impressive choice to think that the larger the animal, the greater the offering, but the value they had in agriculture probably played a part in avoiding killing them. Horse sacrifices were done but they weren’t so common either, for they were held in the highest regard. The ashva-medha could be done for rites of fertility and fortune but the most significant times it was performed were to crown a new king; either one who had just conquered a new region to add to his bounty or upon the death of one and the assumption of power by his son. There are writings of huge events full of offerings that employed hundreds of priests for ceremonies that would have lasted days into months; the sheer volume of animals offered is staggering.  The ashva-medha ceremony was so elaborate and esteemed that as Klostermaier writes, “the Bhagavata Purana can declare that the extermination of the whole of humankind could be atoned for by one…”

In contrast, alongside the texts that detail these sacrifices there are also scripts in which we find an aversion to violence against animals. Chapter 257 of the Vicakhnu Gita, Mahabharata tells of King Vichakhnu having come up on the remains of a bull that had been butchered and in an epiphany was suddenly horrified by the thought as he only then noticed the cries of the other cattle in the quarters.

He said, “May there be good fortune for cows in all parts of the world….Such violence is praised only by men who do not adhere to the proper rules. They are fools, unbelievers, and doubting souls who always remain concealed. The virtuous Manu has asserted that all ritual acts must be free of violence…”

What is trying to be conveyed here is that too many men take the simplistic approach toward trying to please the gods and gain the earthly blessings they desire. This is a verse of admonishment to press them on into more intellectual pursuits, find the deeper meanings of the sacred scriptures and realize that the bloodletting offerings alone are not bestowing the greatest gifts of life that they could have. Basically, they are living as the backward and uninformed, untaught. Manu has moved forward in his thinking and he is saying that, “it is due to desire and attachment that men afflict animals in the space around the altar.” He’s trying to bring the people out of a Dark Ages mentality and that illustrate that there are things you can do to achieve your goals even without all the killing and ritual. He’s encouraging man to look to develop higher intellect, consider the wisdom of the Vedas and find atman, the highest self and rise above the misconception that all blessings are bestowed only through the purging of an animal. This behavior was reflective of pagan civilizations that have come and gone beforehand that believed if they needed redemption, cleansing, forgiveness, and blessings, it could only be gained by someone or something enduring horrific torture. If they would make their spiritual practices more genuine and more on jnana (knowledge), as opposed to such violent forms of yajna, maybe they would come closer to their enlightenment.

This could very well be one of the verses that influenced later Hindu movements and the emphasis on ahimsa, or the concept of committing no violence against any living thing. Buddha was the first prominent party to vehemently embrace and preach nonviolence. He preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just north of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. We know that he renounced his life as a privileged prince and sought solitude, peace and tranquility. Knowing what we do about the civilization one has to wonder what it was that triggered this distaste for the life he was born into. Given that there were none of the car, motorcycle or bus horns blaring and the population nowhere nearly as maddening as it is in present day, what was it that was so chaotic he needed to escape? It may have been all the suffering he was witnessing. The noise and calamity of suffering. The bleating of sheep, cries of goats, moans of cattle living in horrid conditions as beasts of burden and then at the end, led to their butchering and as a royal prince, he would have been privy to these as common occurrences. Maybe underneath it all, the basic motivator of the Buddha was that he held empathy for all living creatures and just couldn’t stand the cries from anymore lengthy rituals. He loved being in the forest where he could just sit and the deer would come up to him, fearless of the docile human. His teachings were poetic, soft and sometimes nearly in playful riddles and codes. He relished in the quiet that an environment of nonviolence afforded him and it must have been a welcome concept to the masses judging by the impact his life had on the community and ages to come.

Jainism was then founded and followed suit with the embracement of non violence, and this in turn had a profound influence on a man named Mahatma Gandhi, undoubtedly the largest modern day proponent of ahimsa.  He redefined the term to include “peaceful resistance” when it came the political unrest and instability seen during the time of Partition when the British were successful in breaking apart Greater India and forming the country of Pakistan. This created a mass exile of many Hindus and Muslims from the only homes they had known for decades. When violence broke out over the issue, he went on a hunger strike to bring it to an end instead of inciting military reaction. When a radical Hindu shot and killed him, blaming him for being too passive on the issue of Partition, the words on Gandhi’s lips weren’t those of anger, revenge or even fear. “Ram, Ram.” A perfect illustration of how he took ahimsa to heart. Chanting the name of his God on his lips as he died so that Ram would whisper the secret to life into his ears on his dying breath. He took to heart and lived the verse in the Mahabharata, “Not harming other beings is certainly recognized as superior to all other forms of dharma.”

So there can be seen quite an evolution and progressive intelligence throughout the Vedas Samhitas and Upanishads that reveal the changes or updates we see from antiquity to present day. The ancient peoples lived by a similar thread that ancient Pagans lived under, meaning, the lore and the divine guidance provided for one lifestyle that we now feel is harsh and barbaric. It was all survival of the fittest. People had their castes, their societal chores, kings and warriors were revered and celebrated with massive offerings and festivals. And then a new wave of human feeling appeared and no longer was it unquestioningly accepted to hear the tortured cries and bellows of the animals whose blood and trauma was meant to bring about goodwill and blessings to those who ordered the knives to their throats.

To the Western world it may be difficult to discern any kind of progress from one age to the next with all the violence within India and strife between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan. For that matter we see a lot of horrific acts committed Hindu against Hindu. But that’s no different from any society. It’s human nature. Those of other faiths may criticize present day Hindus saying, “If you don’t know your Vedas, how can you say you are living by them with a respect?” But is it really any different from the People of the Book who feel a passionate connection to certain verses in the New Testament but tend to dismiss the Old Testament? It’s all the same collection of scriptures they claim to have faith in and while they may go through their days with kindness in their hearts, donations to those in need, and keeping their tempers in check, are they also thinking all the time about the story of Noah and the ark? Jonah and the whale? The episodes with Moses and the burning bush and the baby in the basket?

Not likely. So it’s the same with the Hindu culture and the Vedas. The Vedas are the spine of Hindu tradition and should be respected as such even though many Hindus don’t carry their lessons in the forefront of their minds every day. But visit any Hindu home and you’ll feel the serenity and be the benefactor of their dedication to ahimsa. While not all Hindus are strict vegetarians, the conscientious guest or host will err on the side of caution and not bring any animal based cuisine. If a guest in a Hindu home commits a faux pas, it will probably not be brought to anyone’s attention because to a Hindu, the guest is God. Everyone has the Divine in them and is deserving of service and respect. A simple by–product of ahimsa respect. As one Hindu commits to nonviolence, many he has relationships with follow suit so they do not offend him, their friend who is also divine. The world could learn a lot from Hindus.

A Varanasi shopkeeper respectfully provides a morning chapatti to a cow at his storefront.

Understanding the Hindu Identity

Standard

The term “Hindu” is rooted in the Sanskrit texts that refer to the Indus River, as Sindhu. Language barriers that came into play when invading parties presented in the Indian subcontinent lent an evolution to the words and specifically the Arabic language assigned the label al Hind to the “ people of the Indus River area”. The term further evolved into the name Hindustan for the area they deemed the concerned country. Some sources also claim that the British officers in the East India Company assumed that the native people were mispronouncing the name of their own local river by omitting the “H” therefore saying Indoo when what they really meant was Hindoo.

The concept of Hinduism is broadly defined using characteristics of geographical location, ceremonial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and overall cultural traditions. It was originally applied to those born into the region of the Indus River Valley and expanded to what became known as Hindustan which is present day India.  However, as foreign intruders and those seeking commercial relations began to document the culture for the rest of the world, an intricate network of traits were found to be woven together to create the dynamic that defines what is now known to be one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

Scholars have long taught that the basic criteria for one to be defined as Hindu is that he is born into the culture and accepts the divinity of the ancient Sanskrit Vedas. Other concepts are an adherence to caste rule, the authority of the Brahmin priests, a practice of puja (worship and offerings to deities and other rituals), and belief in the Atman (the eternal self) and reincarnation although this is not a doctrine owned by Hindus alone. A later premise is that of ahimsa, or non-violence which led to the widespread practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus.  However, it is entirely possible to meet Hindus who do not live in accordance with every one of these. As the traditions have been dated to 3000 B.C. it is inevitable to have evolved in some areas.

For example, although acceptance of the Vedas is one of the most basic tenets, the Vedic texts have proven to be of such expansive volume that even the most illumined holy men are accepted to not have thorough knowledge of them all and this must come as a welcome surprise to the overwhelmed new student.  Most every day Hindus share a respect for the Vedas even if they do not have a personal study or understanding of them.

Another aspect of Hinduism that is open to interpretation is the acceptance of Brahmin authority. This is the caste that was of the educators, priests, and other intellectuals who were looked to for guidance and decision making. Once respected as the only channels through which the sacred texts were passed, they were also the only ones able to perform rituals and sacrifices for the people. They alone were entrusted to pronounce the mantras and chants to the precision required to render the ceremony effective. Over time, their services became increasingly specialized that the cost of arranging these services and the procurement of the materials for sacrifices seems to have had an off putting effect on the faithful. Many Hindus don’t participate in this type of worship and instead ascribe to a more personal manner of worship such as darshan which is “seeing” and being seen by the images of the deities in temple and murti puja, adornments and offerings of flowers and sweets made to the altars of deities. This is known as bhakti, acts of devotion. Still others may not identify with a specific deity and instead follow the road of jnana, or knowledge-seeking, pursuing wisdom through meditation, study and renouncement.

Most of these practices could be performed by anyone. So, can someone not born in India adopt a Hindu lifestyle and literally “convert” into a Hindu? Most born Hindus would probably say no but not to be self righteous or exclusive, for Hindus by nature are very inviting and tolerant. It’s more a matter of semantics. While not possible within these definitions to actually convert into a Hindu, it can be said that a person could easily accept the philosophy and practices of the Hindu traditions. Thinking of it in this way may border on defining it as an ethnicity or race and some Hindus would accept that. Even if not born in the region or descended from those who were, one with respect to Hinduism can say, “I am Hindu,” but what he has done is embraced the Hindu philosophy.

For someone who wishes to claim Hinduism but was born outside of it, probably the strongest obstacle he will face is his initial identity which is based on caste.  But if you’re not born a Hindu, you have no way to identify yourself for you have no caste—it can’t just be chosen. Caste is the identity one is born into. Ironically, going farther back in antiquity we see that caste was more of a choice. People found their talents and strengths and often chose a walk of life or profession that they were suited for. It seems cultural regression to know that as time went on, it became less of a choice and quality of life eroded (at least for the lower castes) into a manner that one has no way of rising above what they were born into. Inter-caste marriage is at best discouraged, at worst punishable by death.

The caste system is divided into four primary classes or varnas, the first three of which are considered “twice born” for they adhere to traditions that allow them to undergo certain sacraments and enjoy a more privileged life. There are further divisions of the 4 castes, subcastes called jatis. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), and Vaishyas (merchants and agriculture) are these. Shudras (manual laborers) are the fourth caste and are often mistakenly looped into the lowest jati of all the subcastes, the Dalits or “Untouchables”.

The Brahmins are the priests, teachers, and legal authorities. Those born into this caste would start hearing the sacred texts at early ages and for centuries they were passed down primarily through oral tradition. The most dedicated of the students were able to recite Vedic scripts not only as they were dictated to them but also backwards and sometimes even by omitting every other word. This is what led to the sacraments becoming so specific that it was believed that if one note was chanted off-key or one syllable of a mantra mispronounced during a ceremony, that flaw would render the entire ritual null.

The demand was created for priests of perfection and the costs of affording a Brahmin ceremony became out of reach for the typical Hindu. For a faith that holds end of life renunciation of material wealth in such high regard, it seems that expensive demands from priests for blessings and to restore karma is contradictory.

Nandan Upadhyay of Varanasi described a situation that required consulting with a Brahmin priest. When asked if he kept any pets in his home such as dogs or cats, he explained that one will rarely find a Hindu home with a cat as a pet for they believe that if a cat dies while in their care—regardless of the death having been caused by mistreatment, illness, or accident—an expensive offering of a golden image of a cat must be made to a Brahmin priest. It does not have to be large or even of solid gold; it could be an image etched onto a piece of wood or drawn on paper and then painted in gold leaf, but it did have to be of real gold.  He recalled a day of riding his bicycle through the narrow streets of Benares when a cat darted in front of him. He didn’t have time to brake and avoid it and the back tire hit the cat but as he looked back, he saw it get up and move on although visibly injured. Nandan said he dreaded having to tell his mother because of the expensive offering they would have to come up with if the cat died but if it did, they were to honor their obligations so they started preparations for the offering. He went back to the neighborhood and found the cat’s owner. In the end, the cat had recovered so the need for the offering never materialized and he actually still goes to visit it from time to time.

The Kshatriyas, or the warrior caste, are those destined to serve in the military, become police officers, politicians and local activists. In antiquity they are the leaders of the defense against invading armies. Their history is rich with stories of fierce battles as they fought tirelessly to fend off neighboring kingdoms trying to overtake their region and of devastating defeats as the Mughal rulers pressed on and occupied what was the wealthiest civilization on earth at the time.

The Vaishyas, or merchants, may not be as glorified as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas but they are the pillars of the community. These are the merchants, business owners, the agricultural professionals who run the farms that grow the grain and rice and tend the cattle. Society depends upon them for structure and survival. A culture may be chaotic without religious discipline and military but it could continue. But in a region like India, it is imperative that there be a portion of the population whose purpose is to see that food is farmed and marketed for this is what employs the most and propels the economy.

To a Westerner, the most intriguing aspect of the caste system is that of the lowest caste, the Shudras, for often their treatment is terribly inhumane. They are the laborers who perform the chores and hold not only the lowliest jobs in society, but the poorly paid and most dangerous, especially for the Dalits. They are barred from obtaining educations and in the most orthodox cases forbidden to even hear uttering of any of the sacred texts. It was considered so taboo for the divine words of the Vedas to fall on the ears of a Dalit that if it was suspected it had even occurred by accident or in passing, the usual punishment was to pour molten lead into his ears. A Dalit’s shadow was inauspicious and he could be beaten severely if his passed over an individual of a higher caste. His footprints were considered cursed and many would tuck whisked brooms or palm fronds into the backs of their belts to sweep their footprints from behind them as they walked. The Shudras were the ones with the duty of emptying the night soil from homes, digging latrines, cleaning, and serving. It’s considered inauspicious to touch a corpse but someone has to perform the duties of preparing them for cremation and burial. The Dalits retrieve the body from the home, anoint with oils, wrap in the shrouds, adorn with flowers and place on the pyre. When the cremation is complete, they sweep up the remains and, if in Varanasi, surrender them to the holy Ganges.

To the rest of the world the caste system seems terribly antiquated and a clear violation of human rights but most of India will still defend it and state its value in socio-economics. It’s a widespread misconception that it was officially outlawed a few decades ago although some updating has been attempted. Mahatma Gandhi worked feverishly to improve the conditions for the lower castes, even refusing to refer to them as outcastes, but instead as “Children of God”. The concept of “Untouchable” was abolished and any discriminatory treatment of anyone of that caste is actually illegal, but most will say that progress is slow to be made to truly see tangible changes in how they are treated in society.

Grief on the Ganges

Standard

I came to Varanasi, India, the city held as holiest by Hindus to immerse myself in the issue of death and for an intimate view of how grief is manifested in such different personalities. I wanted to observe the parallels as well as stark contradictions within a variegated culture and then try to clarify my own beliefs by viewing life and death through this filter. Originally, I had planned to focus on life from the perspective of a Hindu woman; how a young girl is raised until her marriage is arranged, her expectations and worries surrounding leaving her family, and the trials that transpire if, God forbid, her worst fear is realized: widowhood. But events transpired over the course of the months spent in preparation and research and by the time the actual journey was upon me, that cold outline that existed of interviews with women of diverse demographics in Indian society had sunk so deep into a quagmire of other issues that it was nearly impalpable.

Shreds of painful memories pierced the story I thought I was yearning for, leaving it a deflated dream that wasn’t meant to be seen to its end, at least not for now. As if a mirror, the size of a life itself, were to come unhinged and shatter into millions of splintered pieces on the floor, every silver shard is a reminiscence that slices the skin and makes the spirit of the heart bleed and weep.

Summer Interrupted

 The hall bell rang indicating the beginning of Drivers Ed class, the two week course all sophomores take the summer before we were to get our licenses. A few kids were still straggling in nonchalantly, unable to reconcile entering the school building in the middle of summer vacation. The basketball coach teaching the class appeared equally unconcerned with the tardiness and continued to read the newspaper glancing up now and then to gauge a lull in the activity when he may bother to get our attention.

“Have you all heard about the girl from Nixa who’s missing?” he asked a room full of fifteen year olds. It was 1985 and there were no iPhones, Blackberries or any other means of instant information overload that is commonplace today. Cable TV had just been introduced to the area the year before and the new 24 hour news networks held no appeal to us when measured against MTV and multiple movie channels. We had been out of school for over a month, well into the practice of sleeping in until we absolutely had to wake up and get going to school for this brief interruption of our vacation. Of course none of us had bothered to watch the local news that morning.

We were all growing up in a town of only 2,000 people which approximated no more than 80 kids in each class. Almost everyone knew one another or had a connection to each other’s families through school or church. The class stirred and we all looked around as if repeating the question without actually saying anything. There was an immediate unease; it was just a given that no matter who the girl was, many of us would know her. Coach Gray hadn’t had to say much. His sober expression communicated that he was struggling with how much information to share with the class.

“Jackie Johns. Her car was found on the side of the road this morning and she was last seen right after she got off from waitressing at the sale barn café last night.”

Everyone knew Jackie. She was 5 years older than our group in class that day and although she had graduated a couple of years prior, everyone knew the beautiful, gregarious Jackie for she was involved in just about every school activity available. She was a cheerleader, Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen. She played basketball, softball and volleyball and drove a black Camaro with a license plate that read, “JACKI 1”. As was the style of the mid 1980’s, her face was always made up prominently with glamorous eye shadows, heavy mascara and glistening lipstick and always carried a bottle of aerosol hair spray in her purse that kept her highlighted layers in a gravity defying lift. She was a living doll but her most galvanizing traits were her constant genuine smile and cheerful eyes.

The room was quiet and I searched my memory for every vision I could conjure up of Jackie and her smile. Cheering at the boys’ varsity games. Diving to catch a ground ball for her softball team. No matter how many times she had to don or take the mitt off, her nail polish was never less than impeccable. The last time I had seen her she was riding in a friend’s convertible in her cheerleading uniform, squealing as they peeled out of the Dairy Queen drive-through, turning past our house on Main Street.  She waved and yelled at my mother on our front porch, “Hi, Myra!” and I heard her laughter until the muffler and the distance drowned her out.

Having no more information than what Coach had just told us, it was as if the silence was enshrouding some vague prayers and hopes as our conscious thoughts tried to absorb what was happening to this lovely girl who had just turned 20 a couple of weeks earlier.

“There, uh,” the coach started and had to clear his throat. “There was blood in the car. It doesn’t look good.”

And hearts sank.

A Birthday

My childhood best friend had gone into labor a couple of days before her due date and delivered a healthy baby boy on Monday morning. Just before the weekend we had joked about the possibility of her having him one day early so that he and I could share a birthday and it had actually happened. I found this out while on my way home from dinner with friends when I just had a thought, “She had a doctor’s appointment today and I never heard from her. She was so uncomfortable the past couple of weeks, maybe I’ll just call the hospital so see if he may have chosen to induce her today.”

Tracey and I had been inseparable as children and it carried on throughout high school and beyond but a few years into college, I picked up on a lark and moved 700 miles away for a change of scenery. I hadn’t intended to drop out of her life but I grew poorer and poorer at keeping in touch due to personal issues of my own that I let chase me away from home and the distractions that a new life offered. Every now and then I would call her up out of the blue and we’d catch up on each other’s lives and she would fill me in on the latest hometown and classmate news. When we were in our mid-twenties she got married and I was thrilled when she asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding; I felt a validation that our bond was still strong even with the miles between us and lapses of correspondence.

A few years later I found out that the marriage had recently ended and I called my dear friend. This spirited, vibrant woman I once knew was not there. She sounded nothing like the girl I grew up with, camping out and playing Truth or Dare in a tent on an empty lot next to her house and following boys around at the mall. Her wry wit that offered up side-splitting one-liners that rendered us all breathless was trampled by the heartbreak of having to accept that she couldn’t fix this man or her marriage. Then there was that all too common self-blame that is experienced by most of the women who find themselves in love with an abusive drunk. No matter how many times I told her, “Tracey, you are not responsible for his bad choices,” her soft replies of, “Yes, I know…but…” it was painful to know that I hadn’t been there where I could have seen what was going on and to encourage and help her heal sooner.

The baby was born to Tracey and her new husband a few years later, a healthy baby boy they named after her and her husband’s fathers. Time and a deep conviction in her faith had healed her heart allowing her to marry again and the love for God that they shared swaddled her in bliss. She was happier than she could have ever imagined.

When the receptionist answered I gave her Tracey’s name and explained that I was looking for a patient who was due anytime but that I wasn’t even sure she was admitted yet, I was just checking. Then that eerie question came.

“Are you family?” the woman on the other end of the line asked and there was a note of uncertainty in her tone.

I felt the seconds stop ticking. My mind didn’t immediately go to an assumption of awful but farther back in there, behind that mind’s eye, something was telling me to brace for something that wasn’t quite right.

“Well…” suddenly my eyes were blurred and the words came out in staccato, very succinctly one at a time as I tried to gather my thoughts between each one. “We were best friends from childhood.” As if that would carry any weight to someone obligated to adhere to patient confidentiality. A moment or two of silence, a click on the line and the next voice answered.

“Intensive Care waiting room.”

Grief

It had now been nearly 5 years since Tracey’s death from complications following childbirth and while time had mercifully granted enough emotional buoyancy for me to manage my life without daily crying jags, she was still ever present. Every day I saw her smile, her flawless, silky olive complexion surrounding her pretty blue eyes and heard her laugh. She had the kind of laugh that was light and airy yet robust at the same time, a giggle that was contagious to anyone within earshot. Visions of her from every angle came to me throughout the days and this puzzled me for awhile. At first I thought it was odd that I was seeing her in so often and so clearly when it had been years since we were really immersed in each other’s lives. I finally decided that when you lose someone you were once so close to, spent so much time with and knew so familiarly, the mind holds fast to every moment spent together in the living years and with no regard for the memories we prefer, it chooses the ones to regurgitate and when. This was the rationale I used to explain why sometimes I replayed conversations we had shared in our twenties over broken hearts when at other times I’d see her as she looked at my fourteenth birthday party.

Just four weeks before departing for Varanasi, the only person of interest there had ever been in the case of Jackie’s disappearance twenty five years earlier was tried and convicted of both aggravated rape and first degree murder. Her body was found in the lake after 5 days and the one man the authorities honed in on was able to elude charges for lack of evidence. Things turned around one day in 2007 when a new detective was given the file and took advantage of advances in DNA technology that hadn’t been available in 1985. Remarkably, even after being submersed in murky water for nearly a week, evidence collected in the rape kit provided the match needed to indict the most hated man in Nixa, a man who by this time was rumored to be responsible for several other women’s disappearances and deaths.

I’ve always accepted that my grief for Tracey would last the rest of my life and that the severity of it would ebb and flow around certain dates. The birthday I share with her son, her birthday, the anniversary of her death and funeral all fall into the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also knew when the trial was going to be held and that barring a delay or mistrial it would have seen its conclusion before my visit to this city that is intricately painted by death and the beliefs and rituals that define it.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I booked the trip was the emotional assault that this incredible undertaking that I spent 7 months planning and memories of past events were all congealing to perform. The unfathomable loss of Tracey and the re-opening of wounds suffered during the trial for Jackie’s murder would all become heartbreakingly entwined in India.

New Delhi

Landing in New Delhi is like landing on another planet in an entirely different universe. Day or night, the haze of filth and pollution is visible on descent and by the time the aircraft is roughly 1000 feet above ground, your eyes seem to be looking at the cabin of the plane through a filtered lens that blurs perfect lines. You blink a few times trying to clear the view that you think is just brought on by the fatigue and dehydration of the long flight before acknowledging that the haze is actually inside the plane and settling into your eyes. The burning starts and your body’s own defense mechanisms kick in to attempt to stave off any further discomfort by stimulating the tear ducts to irrigate and rinse the eyeballs. This inevitably leads to rubbing them with tired hands contaminated with the countless bacteria picked up in the cabin and lavatories of a jumbo jet that circles  the earth and sets down in various environments, which only serves to further exacerbate the burning and itching.

Then the smells start to permeate; with each foot of descent they change and change again, one moment being a stench of something burning, the next of unsanitary toilet conditions, nearby raw sewage, then back again to a faint burning whose source and substance is indiscernible. Is it just a combination of all the industrial development and lack of environmental controls that has caused the immediate assault on the senses or did the government raze part of the slums adjacent to the airport that day? Albeit a crude form of zoning and population control, it is a method frequently utilized in this country by the authorities who use bulldozers to demolish shanties and huts of cardboard and corrugated tin sheets. Most are homes in which the sole method of cooking and heating water is with a kerosene burner so fires are a common by product of this measure. There’s rarely much effort by any emergency services to control these fires; they seem to assist the government in spreading the destruction, death and homelessness by engulfing in flames large areas of the communities that neighbor the areas actually flattened by the heavy equipment.

As unwelcoming as it all sounds, India held my heart from the first time I resided there, and at the moment I once again smelled that rancid odor and felt the burn in my eyes, a sensation of contentment and resolve overwhelmed me. During the months of planning, I had repeatedly resisted the urges to chicken out and cancel the endeavor. Every hour spent studying the ancient holy city of Varanasi and reading about other travelers’ experiences only stirred up more anxiety than excitement. I wondered if I was taking on something that I wasn’t at that time emotionally equipped to deal with.

Learning of the significance of Varanasi in Hinduism and its role in the soul’s perfect departure from this earth left all my loved ones who had already passed on dancing in my mind questioning if, and hoping that I would, feel them there. I wanted to feel Tracey. I yearned for a connection with her to see where she was, how she was, and perhaps be able to comprehend –at least grasp an atom of understanding –why she was gone. It was a reverberating ache, this thought that I may see her in some way if I just believed it and I latched onto it, took possession, as if that would will it to be so.

When I thought of Jackie, I imagined seeing her come out of the darkness and into a soft light. During the 25 years that her killer was living his privileged life with no repercussions, I saw her in the dark, not a bad place, but just a quiet darkness like someone who sits up at night settled into a chair in the corner of a room with the lights turned out. Nothing could bring her back or undo the crimes against her but the trial changed the way I thought of her spirit. Now it felt like she could emerge from that wait and go into the comforting light to let her face feel the warmth and she could see ahead to truly pass on. She could have some peace; she could rest now that she had helped catch the monster that killed her.

I liked that for once I thought of her being in a more comfortable place than those of us still living. I didn’t feel that peace for us. So many had said, “Now her family has some closure,” when the verdicts were announced and that beast would be made to pay for what horrors he had put her through. But I don’t believe there is any closure possible when it comes to murder. A mere human was so saturated with evil that he took it upon himself to end her life in a way that tortured her family and friends and broke the heart of a small town that loved her. He could be sentenced to death by the courts or he could die a thousand deaths at the hands of others as devilish as himself but nothing offers closure on that kind of wound. Closure for a murder can only come when everyone who knew the victim is gone. Only when everyone who knew everyone who knew everyone who loved her is gone. Only when everyone who was touched by her story is also dead and gone can closure be possible because until there is that buffer zone of a generation with no personal attachment to the lost, someone will still be grieving. True closure isn’t sealed until the last tear has been cried.

The exhaustion that had been left by all this turmoil showed hints of starting to lift once I boarded the 15 hour flight from Chicago. I knew that I was doing what I needed to do and that while it may not have been the best idea for some, it was right for me. Rather than waiting for a more appropriate time when I would be feeling stronger, I started to see that this was how it was meant to be. It’s the more challenging experiences that allow us the greatest opportunity for growth. It’s the greatest flames that purify and cause elements to change form—the entire point of cremation. Those who put off feeling emotions until they feel more emotionally ready miss the whole experience. Those are the people who make their hotel beds before letting the housekeeper in or who paint their toenails before a pedicure. This incredibly spiritual journey was destined to be one of healing. The bounce of the landing gear on the runway was validation that I was exactly where I was meant to be.

VARANASI

There were multiple breathtaking moments that I experienced in Varanasi. Many were a sudden gasp at a near miss from being struck by a lorry or a very large cow but most were provoked by tuk-tuks, the black and yellow motorized tricycles covered with a canopy but otherwise open air that topped out at a maximum speed of about 35mph. What they lack in speed, they make up for in mobility and convenience and are the most popular form of transportation in Varanasi, a city of 2 million, mostly poor devout Hindus.

The roads in India would laugh contemptuously at the appearance of the highways to which most Westerners are accustomed. Where our traffic primarily travels in organized lanes and orderly processions, the same road that we divide into 2 lanes would, in India, be wasted space where it’s assumed perfectly reasonable for tuk-tuks, motorcycles and automobiles to be crowded into creating 6 or 7 lanes that fade into one another as the drivers of these vehicles maneuver their carriages in a chaotic dance. Sprinkled into the mix are the labor intensive rickshaws which are best described as adult sized tricycles that offer no protective barrier for the pedaling operator or the passengers were anyone’s brakes to fail. The lofty riders’ seat that sits about 4 feet off the ground and tall skeletal wheels lend a feeling that the contraption is always perilously close to capsizing. Of the many road accidents that do occur, one is astonished at not witnessing them more frequently given the density and disorder of the whole affair.

Traffic signals do little more than provide mere suggestions as to who is to progress through an intersection. A red light is acknowledged by few drivers and they only become obstacles to everyone else who chooses to employ tunnel vision, ignore periphery and to pretend not to see the crowd of vehicles swarming toward the inter-section. Brake lights illuminate intermittently and most of the vehicles are the tuk-tuks which have no turn signals therefore forcing the operators to use hand signals and reach outside the frame of the canopy—at great risk of losing the appendage—to signal that he’s turning or edging a different direction.

The intersection takes on the appearance of an orchestrated dance floor. From each direction many small movements from so many participants, all taking turns, moving forward, some three steps and some two at a time, others standing still, blocked in at the moment that should have been theirs to proceed.  It’s like a waltz at a royal ball in which the dancers know each step and every so often reach out to change partners and directions; however, one who is a spectator and unfamiliar with the procession can never anticipate the next turn and can’t help but be amused at the uninterrupted flow of the sequence.  The simple task of getting out of passenger pickup area of the airport and to a hotel just a few hundred meters away becomes a chess game in which you are an unwilling pawn and the player’s (your driver) poor strategy could cause you serious injury or, at the very least, quite elevated anxiety.

The horns. The ever constant bleeping and brain rattling cacophony of horns! Rather than turn indicators, there is the honking of horns. For every brake tap there are bleeps. For every acceleration there are bleeps that shout, “My turn! My turn!” In the hundreds of autos, bikes and mopeds attempting to conquer just one traffic light, every movement provokes multiple bleeps and it’s unfeasible to make a distinction between who bleeped their announced next steps and who are the responders making their objections known. Pedestrians and desperate, darting children are the recipients of scolding shrieks of brakes at the first hint of a step off the curb, saving them from certain collision by sheer millimeters. The Lorries that share the roads with the rickshaws, taxis, and tuk-tuks literally request horn honking from other drivers to indicate they are approaching the truck in the rear or coming up beside them. On the tailgate of the large vehicle will be artistic script painting in bright Hindu art colors stating, “Horn Please”, in Hindi and English, and Indian drivers are clearly more than willing to oblige. In fact, hugging the horn would appear to be the one rule in India that is adhered to unfalteringly.

The first damned horns started blaring at about three o’clock in the morning. At first there were just a few sporadic ones off in the distance, most likely in the direction away from the river and toward the busier streets that bore the business commuters and Lorries. It had been a less than restful first night. The mattress was just a couple of inches thick and the sheet that was stretched over it was so thin that the floral pattern on the mattress shown right through. Two pillows with no cases were at the head of the bed and there was no top sheet or covers of any kind. It was still in the 80’s at night so I didn’t think asking for blankets was necessary but in the middle of the night I ended up pulling clothes out of my luggage  and slept with a couple of shirts draped over me.

I thought I’d try to ignore the noise by convincing myself that I was still sleeping and perhaps incorporate the sounds into a dream in an effort to steal another hour or so of much needed rest but it was no use.  I lay there on my dandy little prison style bed and began to consciously prepare myself for what I’d be seeing again when the sun brought my reality back to light. Nighttime in Varanasi had already become personified, taking on the characteristics of someone I looked forward to seeing, a dark ghost who provided an escape for just a few hours—yet a spiteful visitor who laughed as he left me and found amusement in watching me struggle through the day.

The ceiling fan roared and stirred the air just so that even in the high India temperatures, some kind of cover was needed on the bed to ward off a chill and the teasing of the hair on my arms that became an annoying tickle. As long as my sleep aid was in its early shift of potency, this was subtle enough to not be bothersome but once it had started to wear off and I began to feel my limbs again it felt like gnats were crawling all over me. It was the loudest ceiling fan I’ve ever heard and sounded much more like a lumbering old window mounted air conditioner but I was grateful for that for it was the only thing that helped cope with all the city noise by drowning out what could not even be touched by ear plugs or an iPod. I thought for a moment that I could have used a noise canceling headset but I’m sure even the highest end Bose set would have been about as useless in Varanasi as tits on a warthog. What was really necessary to defeat the racket was at the very least an egg of Silly Putty to cram into each ear, stuffed in bit by bit to plug up the auditory canals. After that I could don the headset but even that would have to be outfitted with mechanisms on each earpiece that mimicked that sound of jet engines. I have no doubt that I would still hear horns.

God bless the pharmaceutical company that makes Ambien. It’s well known that sleep deprivation and excessive noise are both widely recognized forms of torture and my Ambi-candy treats them both. Of course it doesn’t actually affect my hearing or make the environment any less noisy; it just renders me so barely conscious that for a few hours it’s like flipping the bird to all the chaos. That little orange prescription bottle is worth more to me than gold bullion. Picking up a refill is like Christmas, only better because I get refills a lot more than once a year.

I hadn’t yet purchased any figurines of Ganesh, Shiva, or Ram, but with those gods as my witnesses, this is how I felt about my little orange Ambien bottle: it was my chosen diety. In Hindu homes you’ll find shrines and altars dedicated to the deities that particular household are devotees to. This is usually a prominent place in the general living area where there are statues of their most important gods set upon a shelf or mantle surrounded by beautiful textiles, flowers and candles. To complete the altar there are often paintings of the primary diety of the household that creates a backdrop. In Puja (worship) the deities are adorned with fragrances, garlands of marigolds and offerings of sweet treats while prayers of thanksgiving and blessings are offered as well as petitions for wellbeing and protection. I didn’t have to be in Varanasi very long in order to realize that my Ambi-baby bottle was deserving of that kind of adoration. Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon that had him disguising Daffy Duck as a rabbit and bequeathing him to some big ogre of a creature who clumsily grabbed him and hugged him so hard his little eyeballs popped out?

“I will hug him, and squeeze him and call him George,” said the oaf. As said I to my ten milligram gods every night in Varanasi. The few hours that those little white pills helped to dispel of the racket and allow some recharging rest were the sweet nectar of life.

Resigned to the fact that my opportunity for sleep for the night had concluded, I opened my eyes to the glare of a streetlight shining through the window of the room. Actually it was more of a hole than a window for it was a large square opening cut out of the wall high up near the ceiling and it had no glass panes, just a couple of iron bars spaced just right so that only a small child could fit through them if someone hoisted him up about 9 feet. They may have kept hooligans out but they did nothing to discourage the lizards from visiting me every morning and with regard to my phobia of reptiles, I’d rather take my chances with a hooligan.

They were just little gecko type creatures which, when in Hawaii or Florida, I find amusing but thrown into the mix of my sensual bombardment here, not so much. On more than one occasion, I awoke to a couple of them hanging out on the ceiling directly above me prompting a rapid roll and leap out of bed for fear of them dropping onto my face. It didn’t escape my thoughts that in that initial moment of sheer panic, I gasped so forcefully that I’m lucky I didn’t suck one clean off the ceiling and inhale it. That would have been a less than glamorous way to go after all the precautions that had been taken over the past several months. I had gotten all the immunizations for hepatitis, typhoid, the adult polio booster, yellow fever, tetanus, took the anti-malarial pills that wreak havoc on the digestive system, flew to Varanasi, ate the food and didn’t get sick, drank the water and still held my own and I practically bathed in Deep Woods OFF and Germ-X alternately. Damned if aspirating a lizard was going to be my undoing.

It was still completely dark outside at four o’clock in the morning and as I came to the bottom of the stairs and into the simple lobby of the Ganesh Guest House, I found that the two staffers were still sleeping on the gray tiled floor, no pillows or covers. Just to the side of the doorway, an ancient computer that was touted on the establishment’s business cards to have “free internet” for the guests clicked and clattered randomly as those obsolete machines do, and cyclically the fan inside would whir for a few seconds at a time. The little green power light blinked weakly as the machine wheezed and rattled as if trying to communicate that it still had a will to compute, to outlive dial up service and grow up to be a big boy with a router and DSL. The same two young men were manning lobby every day and night, Abbas and Ravi.  Ideally, I would have sneaked past without disturbing these poor sweet men who work such tiresome hours but the entrance to the hotel was locked by a large iron accordion-style gate secured with an impressive padlock. I looked around for any other way to leave without having to wake them but that was the only access or egress I could see which led me to wonder how we were to get out in case of an emergency. In India fire exits are viewed as nuisances, not necessities, whose only purpose is providing one more entrance for thieves and beggars.

I debated returning to my room for just a little while longer till I started hearing more activity, thinking that I’d rather let one of the other guests be responsible for deciding that it was time for them to start their day when one of the men stirred and lifted his head a bit to try to focus his sleepy eyes. Offering an apologetic smile and an Indian head waggle that I was still trying to master, I put my hands to heart in prayer and nodded at him.

I whispered, “Namaste, so sorry to wake you—do you mind?” and glanced toward the gate to imply a request for it to be unlocked. He smiled and waggled in response and willed his thin frame to lift him to nearly standing. Sleeping on the cold floor had clearly left the poor man too stiff and sore to straighten out of a stoop. I scolded myself for having found the 3 inch thick mattress on my bed so inadequate when offered up against the discomfort so many have to endure every second of every minute of every hour of every day is beyond comprehension. Abbas’ heavy keychain jangled against the baby blue painted steel as he inserted an oversized, very archaic looking key into the lock and then leaned against the gate having to use most of his weight to push it open. The metal squealed in protest as its joints were forced to fold back into themselves and the bottom rim scraped against the polished tile.

I walked down the few steps from the guest house entrance and stopped to look in both directions in the alley so I didn’t step directly into the path of anything oncoming and then looked down at my feet to watch for piles of cow shit to avoid. The only thing on the pavement that was more plentiful than cow pies were potholes and I had visions of stepping into a pile of shit, slipping, and tripping into a gaping hole in the street and breaking my leg. The thought of needing an emergency room in this town was far from appealing.

I stopped again at the end of the alley before turning into the street and as I stood there taking in the rhythm of activity that was waking up, I felt something push me from behind. My foot slipped on the uneven pavement and I leaned into the outside wall of the corner shop as an enormous cow claimed her right to the slim passage. She wasn’t intentionally demonstrating aggression; she was simply looking ahead and saw where she wanted to go, lowering her head to the ground every few steps to investigate possible food sources. She was blissfully unaware of her girth past her head. I braced myself against the building and sucked in my breath as much as possible to allow her to lumber past me, chewing on a decaying banana peel, her massive ribcage pressing me until she narrowed again at her flanks.

Only 38 hours had elapsed since the drive from the Varanasi airport and I felt a crushing anxiety already. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend being able to endure the entire 4 weeks I had planned to stay and I was already about ninety-nine percent sure that I would be cutting the trip short. However, I was there and I’d spent months planning this adventure and before admitting defeat I was first going to force myself to do something here that I was terrified to do, something that could not be experienced anywhere else in the world; take a dawn boat ride down the Ganges to see the famous banks including the burning ghats where the majority of the city’s cremations take place.

It is believed that if you die in Varanasi or at least have your body cremated there on the ghats (the banks of steps leading down into the river) and your remains are put into the Ganges that you achieve moksha, meaning, you are released from the turmoil of samsara which is the cycle of death and rebirth and you go to Paradise or Heaven. For this reason, the city has grown to a population of over 2 million people who take comfort in knowing that this is their last life on this earth. To die in Varanasi means that the misery of all physical life is over; no amount of bad karma can cause you to be born into a more miserable next life and you no longer have to strive so hard to build up good karma for a favorable next life. This illustrates the appeal that it holds for the large number of widows. The widow’s existence becomes so challenging after her identity dies along with her husband’s that hundreds make their way there every day to live out the rest of their days often actively praying for death. If, however, you foolishly cross the Ganges and happen to die while on the other bank, you will be reborn as a donkey.

Rounding the corner the river came into view and the full moon reflected on the surface illuminating the ghat just enough for the boats at the water’s edge to be made out and the dark figures of the oarsmen started to stir as they saw business opportunities arriving. I braced for an onslaught of hecklers and touts but the crowd was much more docile than what I had experienced in Delhi and Mumbai. The men made themselves available by passive eye contact and polite offers of boat rides but they were refreshingly non-aggressive. Even with the poverty and a daily struggle for survival, the people of Varanasi were welcoming and non-threatening. Their faith avows that in the holy city limits, any crime committed is weighted a thousand times more heavily and the desire to avoid bad karma is palpable.

I wanted to give my business to a younger boatman and Deepak approached me at just that thought. He looked to be in his mid to late teens, lean and muscular with teeth so white that they and his eyes were what I could see the most clearly in the dim moonlight.

“Boat, Miss? Boat, Miss? You come in my boat?”

I waggled my head in agreement and asked, “How much?”

“Five hundred rupees.” About eleven dollars US for my own guided boat tour with a single oarsmen rowing about a mile upstream and back. The ride would take about 2 hours and by the time we’d return to Assi Ghat the sun and heat would be too great for him to do another tour until the evening. Even then it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d get another fare so it was possible that what he made off me would be his only income of the day.

Deepak took my hand and guided me to his boat with the aid of other men whose boats were all crowded together on the shore and led me to use them all as bridges and stepping stones to get to the one we’d be taking up the river. They all looked the same and I wondered how they could distinguish one from another in the dark as they were all suffering from faded paint and no real identifying marks. It was quickly apparent that I needed to pay close attention to Deepak’s instructions and step only where he did for several boats looked less than seaworthy and even when he indicated we had found his, he reached down to adjust a couple of the floor slats, sliding them into place so that I had a firm place to step into the vessel.  I took one of the seats and checked around to see how it settled with my weight, noting the rotting pieces that seemed to cry out wanting to detach from one another. I am nearly as afraid of water as I am of snakes and was about to float out into the Ganges, arguably one of the most polluted waterways on the planet, in the dark, in a rickety old rowboat that looked like it could have been built by Christ himself. Well, I thought, if I die at least it was while doing something cool.

I was getting settled in when I looked up and saw a beautiful little girl running toward us. She had something in her hands and a determined expression on her face and I knew that she had found in me an obvious sucker who would buy her wares even if she had been selling baby cobras.

“Madam! Diyahs! Good karma, long life! Madam!” She leapt with quick agility over the boats to get to me. Deepak tried to shoo her away to discourage the pestering that most of his customers surely tire of.

I said to him, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind. I was meaning to get a few of them anyway to set out on the water.”

The little girl was selling diyahs, small offerings constructed of a waterproof paper bowl that looks somewhat like wood parquet. In it is placed a pool of ghee or oil, marigold blossoms and flower petals and a long wick. They are to be lit and then set afloat as a prayer for favorable karma but they are also symbolic of leading a departed soul’s way across the river to progress on to Paradise. I bought 3 of them from her and she ran away to proudly show her profits to her brothers.

This was the primary task I had set for myself to complete before anything else could be absorbed on the journey. There was something so beautiful about the gesture of the setting of diyahs on the water and I wanted to light one for Tracey, one for Jackie, and one for Austin, a 17 year old boy from home whose sudden death a couple of months ago had shaken the high school football team on the first day of summer practice. I didn’t know him but felt connected to his mother who was my age and with whom I shared mutual friends. My heart broke for her and although we had never actually met, we corresponded through emails and I felt an intimate connection with her. Ironically, her name was Tracey. The diyahs had been on my mind since I left home. They were to be like a last hug and kiss to the 3 of these people who were all struck down in the primes of their lives, a sort of letting go, and I wished that their family members could have been there instead of my feeling like I was cheating them. It was an experience that they had much more right to than I.

As Deepak labored and rowed us upstream and past the adjoining ghats, I listened to the worshippers as they rang their chimes, splashed and bathed in the river, chanted and prayed. I was amazed that I wanted to breathe deeply to take in the morning air, which was bafflingly without stench. How could it be that all the sewage, death and pollution of the city is offered into the Ganges flowing downstream to meet us yet out on the water was the one place that offered a respite from the odor of shit and rot that engulfed the rest of the town?  I mentioned this to Deepak.

“The Ganga is not dirty. It is our Mother. The no smell is part of the mystery of her Divine,” he smiled, straightening me out. “You wish to light diyahs?”

I did want to see them before the dark was gone so he stopped paddling and pulled a matchbook out of his pant pocket. I wanted the whole event to slow down so that I could feel every rock of the boat, listen to the fizz of the matches igniting the three diyahs one by one and meditate on distinct prayers for Jackie, Tracey and Austin individually, but that would risk missing the greater moment. I knew that their concept of time was now on a different plane than mine and that no matter how much of a blur it was to me, they would still feel the energy.

All three diyhas flames were now flickering and I stared at them on the floor of the boat.  The still air let them dance daintily to the distant bells and priestly chants. One at a time I scooped them up and attached a name to them.

Austin. Austin, I’m so sorry I never met you. I’m here for your mother right now and at this moment on the other side of the world I want you to know you’re thought of, how far your life reached. I wish we knew why you were taken. How did that one seemingly simple choice lead to such excruciating agony for those you left here so young? I set his diyah on the water and watched the tiny light till it disappeared on the current.

Tracey. My dearest childhood friend Tracey who had solidified a relationship with her God and Jesus and while my own beliefs were scattered, there was no other place I could imagine her but exactly where she believed she would be. I hoped that she could at least see me from where she was to know she was being remembered at that very moment. I was still in the dark on the Ganges but I only saw her in comforting sunlight standing in a field of brightly colored flowers with white rays of Heaven shining down all around her, clearly she was with the God who holds her heart. I miss you so much. At times I think I understand why you’re gone but those brief thoughts don’t erase the moments that flash now and then when I nearly reach for the phone to call you to tell you about something I just saw. I lose track of seasons and years in those moments. Losing you crushed my faith. Your mother, father and brother are shattered but they still have a piece of you in the little baby you made. He is their lifeline to you and I wonder if he will ever comprehend exactly what that means. It was hard to let Tracey’s diyah go and it floated off as quickly as Austin’s.

I may not have known Jackie but it was when I set her diyah on the water that I felt the wind purge from my lungs. Maybe it was being able to turn the page of injustice for those 25 years in which her killer paid no price and now it felt like Jackie had won. It was another stitch in the seam of the collective heart that had been ripped apart that night and while it can never be completely repaired there was a genuine feeling of one more stone turned upright in the world. Her mother had passed just a few years after her murder but her father and 4 sisters were still living on and as her diyah drifted away I hoped that they had felt at least some comfort that her killer would live out the rest of his miserable days as a cursed evil marked for death far from the luxuries he had known most of his life.

Enlightenment

While contemplating the grief process one night I was trying to find a thread of reason to grasp that I could use to reel myself to a place where I understood how to feel from the moment of tragedy to the stage of acceptance and moving on. As a child I would crawl under the covers and cry unendingly because I didn’t yet have the ability to see that the pain would alleviate and I would be able to compartmentalize this experience and move on. But now, after enduring painful events and being able to clearly reflect upon them and acknowledge getting past them all, I wanted an understanding of the time in between. I wanted to know how I would counsel my ten year old self in a time of loss with the lessons learned with age.

It slowly came to me that I may have chosen to hold onto and continue hurting over some painful memories where others I easily processed and let go. Contrary to popular psychiatric protocol, I don’t believe that we have all that ability to choose our thoughts and dismiss the hurtful remembrances that hold us back, but I can’t explain why we’re able to slough off some more easily than others. It seems that if we could take in information (such as the news of the death of a loved one) and embrace the lesson and wisdom that the experience has to offer, yet not feel the pain or sadness, we would be a much stronger and emotionally healthy culture.

That may be possible in a science fiction story but in humanity it simply isn’t. We have to feel the gamut of emotions for the experience to be complete. A sob not released and a tear not spilled from the eye short circuits the lesson that will at some point impart a measure of comfort. I remember a line from a book of devotionals I was gifted years ago in a time of stifling grief; “Breaded corn is broken”. In order for a cake to be made or a loaf of bread to be kneaded, one of the main ingredients has to be taken from its purest and most complete form and picked off the stalk, have the husk ripped away and separate the kernels from the cob. Then each piece is pummeled and ground into a fine powder no longer recognizable as that solid outgrowth from the six foot tall plant. What starts as a kernel has to be crushed into flour, a workable form before it can be the largest ingredient in bread.

An image started to develop that, to me, became a moving picture to illustrate the confusion of this life experience.

I saw a long, gently curving cobblestone road ahead of me, a memory of one of the streets of Varanasi. It was fairly level and didn’t appear to meet with any changing grade going uphill or down; it just snaked on ahead in even waves from the left to the right. The stones were slightly varying in shape but similar in size and closely set in an irregular yet flowing pattern so that it had an aesthetic appearance that kept the eye interested. The lighting was even as if the sky were overcast or the entire road was shadowed and the one consistency in the stones was their color; that of a dark sienna brown. The space between the stones was minimal and just enough to see where to differentiate one stone from the next by the grooves where the depths escaped what little light was on the surface of the pavers.

I was taking it all in as a peaceful, dream like vision that felt like that last hazy moment before falling into sleep, when the picture started morphing. As I let my eyes gaze farther and farther down the road, in my peripheral vision I started to notice something changing. I looked down at my feet and one at a time, some of the stones before me softly illuminated and then faded out again in a single subtle blink. I looked behind me and more of them were doing the same thing randomly and never in unison but graciously taking turns. It wasn’t done in rapid succession but very slowly so that perhaps for a second or two there would be none that were changed and then from much farther behind me one would take its turn. They were communicating, somehow orchestrating the arrangement in which each chose when to rest and if or when to glow. They were allowing one another to breathe its complete illumination and then return back to its unlit state before the next would commence its glow.

A stone behind me took just a few moments to go from that deep brown to a muted shade of glowing green– not a bright and fast blink but more like a light that was filtered through fog. The gaps between the stones kept their darkness but the brown color of the rock itself gradually faded giving way for the green that slowly bled in from the edges until it showed through most directly in the center of the stone. It maintained its faint glow for a brief time and then came back into rest much in the same way that a candle is snuffed out.

All along the road from the area directly beneath my feet to as far in the distance that I could see in either direction, many stones took turns undergoing the same metamorphosis but through different colors. There were flickers of blue, mauve, green, or gray and although they were hazy and subtle, the image was in no way lackluster. The sequence of the dancing colors varied so that I couldn’t anticipate where the next changing stone rested, instead it would catch my eye as it lit and went out again. Looking behind me and all around, I saw something like a soft, slow motion strobe-effect. As each stone stopped glowing and faded back to opaque, it retained the color that it had changed into. The light’s life span quickly passed but the stone was left permanently changed in its color. The ones that had glowed blue became a darker hue of blue, the luminescent mauve altered to a darker mauve, and so on with all the stones that had shown themselves lit.

This road of changing stones was a metaphor. The road was a life. The stones were all the components and experiences of a life. Some of the stones were people whose paths we cross, friends, family members, even acquaintances.  Some were events that placed themselves in this life, those that brought profound sadness and those that offered inexplicable joy. The moment my dear friend received a call that her brother was critically injured in an accident and most probably would not survive. He did, but each surgery, each step forward and each setback in his recovery resulted in colored stones. A couple of years later, another stone lit when someone else she was very fond of was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Each tearful interaction, each conversation filled with sobbing, every opportunity taken to commiserate with her would be another stone kilned to color on the path. She chose to see colors on her road one day when she committed to accompanying him to his chemotherapy appointments. She could have chosen not to do it and avoid coming face to face with the rigors of cancer treatment and take the less painful direction that would leave stones as they are.  Not everyone would endure this with a friend—a spouse or child, yes, but not always a friend. Fully aware of the horrors of cancer and its remedies, sharing the anguish of the sweats and chills, the vomiting, the “should I even go on” moments that her friend will inevitably go through, I know she will be with him every time, the fact that it means frequent travel notwithstanding. As painful as they will be, she is choosing to share this experience and create these memories.  She will one day be looking back at an incredible mosaic of her life.

Some of the stones were specific conversations with persons that no matter how brief the exchange of words, were meant to leave a lasting impression.

“You’ll never leave me. You’re such a little girl. A little Daddy’s girl and you’ll never be strong enough to just pick up and leave. I can do anything to you—and what are you going to do? You’ll never leave me.” Such was the claim of the emotionally abusive and controlling individual I endured for a year in my early 20’s. The memory of that conversation is a stone that changed the course of my life. Within three months of leaving him I went from being an unemployed student living with and financially dependent upon him to pursuing my first flying job, traveling the world and buying my first house. I was never tempted to look back, to reconnect or even just “catch up”. That stone stayed put and stayed a solid muddy color of the darkest brown while all the stones adjacent shone in all those other heavenly colors.

As each stone that would go through the metamorphosis was a moment experienced or a chance grasped, those were the stones that would feel the warmth of my foot. Thinking about life in this imagery made me want to tap my toe onto as many of them as I could without losing my balance and falling, allowing as few as possible to go untouched. From this point on, I would attempt to live consciously, try to recognize the potential lesson in every moment. In spite of this, I had no regrets over the stones behind me that had never changed. I reasoned that one that I had come so close to stepping on– but then didn’t– had been loosely embedded in mud and would have slipped out of its place. Another one may have looked like all the other beautiful stones but was actually quite weakened by decay and rot. Stepping on either of these could have caused me to fall as they shifted under my weight. Those stones are not missed or ignored opportunities over which to be remorseful; they simply lie beside the stone that was the better choice at the time. The stone that provided the firmest footing.

No unchanged stone was representative of regret; some were never meant to be touched but were meant to be there to buttress the stones that were stepped upon. When I turn around to look back at the portion of the road that I’ve already traveled, I see a beautiful path of perfectly coordinated stones. And while even the ones that were never changed from that unsightly appearance of a mud brick certainly do serve a purpose, it’s the others, the ones that felt the questioning touch of life and are forever embellished with color, that really make the road worth traveling.

Touch stone.

A special thank you to the family members of Tracey, Austin and Jackie who gave their blessings for me to write about their loved ones and the enormous impact their lives had on this journey.