Just coming off a whirlwind weekend visiting a college with my oldest, soon to be 18, my daughter.
We landed in Denver and I stopped to fill my water bottle at Root Down, my favorite stop at DIA. After filling it, I screwed the cap on tight and turned, just in time to see a man being wheeled past, only a few feet from me, a swarm of paramedics administering CPR. I could see his chest going down and up, an alarming amount of distance really, it was not natural, not at all. They were pumping his chest with their hands. He was wheeled down some hallway I’ve never noticed before – the whole thing happened in seconds. “This is an emergency” I thought. I sucked in my breath. It did not look good.
Right there in terminal C a man was possibly dying. Probably dying by the look of the whole scene. I shut my eyes and felt the tears. Heading down the escalator to the train, I wanted to stop and tell the people swarming from the doors, “There’s a man possibly dying up there!” Life and death so close.
Of all the things I kept thinking about this weekend, “Life is Short” was one of the most prevalent thoughts. Memories of my girl as a toddler, scenes of her as a youngster, bed time, reading her stories, singing to her. Watching her struggle and falter and careen into some hard years.
Now a young woman, going to college. Beautiful big eyed girl. At ease (mostly) with herself and with life. She’s ready. I watch her from a distance.
Leaving the airport, we drive straight to her dad’s house. It’s Passover and we are going to his “Bob Marley” Seder. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery and people will play instruments and sing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
On the way, we stop and pick up my daughter’s boyfriend. I hear her in the back of the car whispering to him, “You are part of this family”. We arrive and the table is crowded with friends and relatives and exes and children. We open the door for Elijah. As usual, everyone is starving as we slog our way through the Haggadah – the book we read that tells us what Passover means and why we celebrate as we do.
On this night I sit between my son and my friend Starling. There is laughter, and the usual chaos. There are people complaining that they’re hungry, and children who would like to drink more wine, there’s raucous singing, and music breaks for more Bob Marley songs, there’s dancing, and food. And more food! Tsimmis (my favorite), and brisket, and smoked turkey with gravy, and matzah and charoset and soup and gefilte fish. Everyone is stuffed.
I look around the table. There is love. There is forgiveness. There is laughter and subtext. History. There have been heart-aches and illness and crises and hard times. Tonight we celebrate Redemption – being saved from sin and error and gathering together to celebrate another year with love and grace.
I raise a glass and thank the cooks. And I remember the people that can’t be with us; the people that can’t be here and the people that have passed before, and yet they feel so close tonight. And I say a prayer for the man at the airport and his family. We all drink. L’Chaim. To Life. Life is short. We are all part of this family.
I do the dishes. The kids stay at their dad’s. My heart is full with just a tinge of sadness. The full April moon follows me on my ride, lighting up the mountains that wait silently for me to arrive, home.
I work with people with broken hearts. I am deeply touched by their stories, their tears, their longing. I am also touched by their resiliency and bravery; to seek support and be willing to share with strangers. I am heartened by the comfort these group members take from connecting with each other. It reminds me how much we humans are social creatures longing for connection.
What drives us to keep going? For me, it is the most basic and yet profound human experience I can describe: connecting from the heart with others. Love.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
They say we have star particles inside of us. It’s true. Look it up. I think this is as magic as it gets. I like to imagine that I used to be a star, before I came into this body. In my fantasy, I peek down on planet earth and I see people living their lives. Tucking their babies close to their hearts, right under their chins, breathing them in. Getting licked by their dogs and succumbing to their joyful, unconditional expressions of love. I see lovers, breathing, bodies moving, sensual awareness and electricity. Watch friends sharing a smile, no need for words. I admire a body running fast along a trail, legs pumping and lungs bursting. I would want that, as a star. To experience humanness. To BE.
“Sign me up!” I shout. “I want to feel! I want to touch. I want to love!“
But…the Universe answers…’In this full tilt, multifaceted life, there are ups and downs. Not every day is filled with laughter and joy. There is hardship and strife. Do you still want this?’ “Yes I do!” I exclaim without a second thought. “See ya!” and off I go without a backward glance. That is so me.
But that is just a fairy tale. And here I am. Alive. On Earth. And some days life feels excrutiatingly painful. My dog dies. My lover betrays. My baby grows up and pulls away. My friendships end. A relative takes his life. There are bills to pay. My body hurts when I run.
What do I do when life feels unbearable? I Isolate. Cry. Pray. Reach out. In that order.
I reached a very low point several weeks ago. I felt alone and out of choices. I was scared. I cried and prayed. Then I got up off my knees and I made a couple phone calls. To some “lifeline” friends. I wrote to my community and asked for daily texts through the month of October and people started signing up. Every day I would get a message of love and support on my phone. Some people sent inspirational poems. In just a few short weeks, I started to feel better. Uplifted even. I felt the loving connection of human contact and was filled with gratitude for the people in my life.
They say there are no accidents in life. The ongoing grief support group I had agreed to facilitate started during that time. I got to sit with people who where struggling with their grief; to witness people who loved so deeply that their hearts were broken when their person died. Being of service added meaning and depth to my life and I felt on purpose again.I am humbled and amazed at both the tenderness and ferocity of love. And the tenacious courage we humans – made of skin, blood, water and bone – access again and again to continue loving. Even when it breaks us.
Since I started letting people know about the online suicide support group that begins next Monday, I have been contacted almost daily by people who are suffering, sometimes years after their loved one’s death. Each person has held their grief tenderly in their hands and I have held out my hands to hold it with them for awhile. Not wanting to move too quickly or speak suddenly, wanting to keep the reverence of this moment. Being allowed to hear these sacred stories has been my honor.
Humans have a deep need to belong – to each other, to someone, to a group, to a purpose. After a traumatic loss like suicide, people tend to lose their bearings for a time. Who am I? What’s next? How do I keep going? What’s the point? are all questions that can come up. Gratitude can feel impossibly elusive. The main focus of the Suicide Loss Support Group is to connect people to each other. To share our stories and to learn to bear the beams of love – together.
Please share this information with anyone you think could be served by having a supportive community to belong to:
Suicide Loss Support Group: Losing a loved one to suicide can be extremly shocking and sad. There can also be shame or societal stigma associated with this type of loss. In this group, you will be connected with others who have each experienced this particular type of loss and have the opportunity to share your story with each other. This is a six week support group that meets online once a week. The group is open to 8 participants who have lost a loved one to suicide. Each week we will begin with an exercise (breath work, guided relaxation) to open the group. Everyone will have an opportunity to check-in with the group and share. There will also be topics for discussion and materials emailed weekly. There is no “homework” for this group, only handouts that are optional and ideally helpful. Cost for this group is $180 and includes 6 weekly group sessions and weekly materials that will be emailed to each participant. A pre-group screening call is required. To arrange a phone call, please contact me.
Dates and time: Mondays; 11/21, 11/28, 12/5, 12/12, 12/19 & 12/26 6:00 – 7:30pm MST Time
A friend of mine has traveled to Orlando to offer free therapy to those affected by the recent tragic event that took place at Pulse. He asked me if I would make a meditation available for people struggling with their emotions in the aftermath of this traumatic event. I am honored to be of service in this way. Through posts on Facebook and watching the news I see how this act of violence ripples out to the community, the country and the rest of the world. My prayer and deepest wish is that this offering may give somebody out there a moment of peace, comfort, and a knowledge that they are not alone. That we are ALL in this together. And if one suffers, we all suffer. Please feel free to share this link with anyone who you think could use it.
Meditation dog. Never sat down to meditate without my sidekick showing up. Had her own sheepskin but she would usually crawl in to my lap midway through the set.
A little too full-figured for a lap dog. She didn’t care.
Silly dog – people would smile at the sight of her. Some would ask to take her picture. She made me laugh. Every day.
Drove to Texas with Lili to get her at 8 weeks old. She was the size of a baked potato. A baked potato with huge ears.
When she was happy she would roll on her back and make strange choking sounds.
Everyone thought she was a boy. “Don’t they see the pink harness?” I would ask myself out loud.
She loved me. My god the devotion. She would whine outside the bathroom door for me. When I traveled she would go on hunger strikes and suffer bouts of depression.
Had to stand on my lap in the driver’s side looking out the window on car rides.
Flew on the airplane like a champ. My “emotional support” dog. She would fall asleep as soon as the plane took off. Lying across my lap, occasionally farting. Nobody seemed to care.
Her breath was terrible. All her life.
She was unafraid. She would challenge the largest deer. Shrilly barking at the nonplused herd. I thought she would get brained one day by a sharp cloven hoof.
She was Mr. Magoo blind. Unaware one time that a large red fox was stalking her in our backyard. I had to run out in my socks and scare it away. Then she barked like a mother fucker.
Dare I say it, she could strike quite the elegant pose in her old(er) age.
I burn with shame to say that I don’t remember the last walk I took her on. I’ve been pretty busy the past several days. And it’s been snowing. Not her favorite weather condition.
The last two nights of her life she slept uncharacteristically close to me, up by my pillow. It was cold outside, I didn’t mind. Sweet comforting presence of her, snuffling and snorting.
Her last day, she ate a good breakfast – rotisserie chicken and kibble. She took a nap with me on the couch. I’m wracking my brain to think of what else she did. Barked at a puppy – as was her way. Not very friendly to other dogs, sorry to say. She skipped dinner – that should have been a huge red flag. She enjoyed her meals.
Last night, I came downstairs to turn off the lights. In hindsight, I do think it was strange that she hadn’t already made her way up to my bedroom. I saw her sleeping on the rug in the TV room. I called her name and she didn’t wake up. Not strange though as she’s become hard of hearing lately. I stretched my hand out. She was cold.
Linda called her “soulful” and that felt too deep to me at first. I found her subtlety dismaying. Never a licker or a tail wagger (she didn’t really have one) her face was a mystery. Poker face extraordinaire.
She was my heart companion. For ten years Ruby has been by my side. When I cried, she would charge her way to my side. Concerned. Present. A reassuring weight. Her favorite place was on me or right beside me. Always. So “soulful” it is. I can see that now.
I am chagrined to note that in all my “death” experiences of being and sitting with people and animals that are dying, I was a basket case when it came to this. I was afraid to touch Ruby and I felt totally freaked out, like I wanted to run or throw up or both, simultaneously.
Grateful to my kids for their compassion and kindness last night, to my sweet friend who stayed up until 1am with me on the phone and to my sister Linda who came over this morning and did what I couldn’t. She helped me get Ruby out of the cardboard box in the garage, set up an altar with sweet flowers, candles, oils and incense. And chanted Akals to my soulful heart companion, Ruby. Then she helped me wrap her in the same sheet we had wrapped her beloved mastiff, Juno, in just a few weeks ago and bundled me in her car, while I held Ruby in my arms, kissing her sweet nose, and drove me to the vet, where I left her to be cremated.
or… What I Learned Last Week Through Trial and Error
I spent a chunk of last week caring for my dear friend Barbara after she had surgery. I have never had surgery and really had no idea what to expect. I just knew that this is one of my best friends and I wanted to be there for her and so I volunteered to be her main person for the first few days. What I know in hindsight is that this is no small task nor should it be taken lightly. And…it’s not for everyone. So I’ve compiled a list of what I learned in the hope that it will help others – both caregivers and people about to have surgery – so that they can make the best decisions about who is in their space at this tender time.
1-Play to Your Strengths
For example if you don’t have the best bedside manner but you make a really mean chicken soup, volunteer to make meals, but don’t sign up to be the hand holder for your friend or family member when she’s getting prepped for surgery. If you decide to take on the “job” of caregiver, go for it wholeheartedly and no holds barred. Be on board. If rubbing somebody’s feet makes you squeamish, find someone who is great at giving massage to come sit with the patient while you have a little break.
2 – Take Your Job Seriously
Remember that you are the gatekeeper and that your job, to the best of your ability, is to filter all the personalities, energies and information that the patient is being bombarded with. You are an advocate for the patient. You’re another set of eyes and ears, don’t be afraid to take notes or even record the doctor when they are speaking. In my experience, nobody minded when I asked for clarification on certain things or had questions about the aftercare instructions. In general, I felt that the hospital preferred that I was there as a go-between for Barbara.
3 – Be Gentle with the Patient!
Even if you’ve never had surgery before, it’s important to note that the days leading up to surgery, immediately after the operation, and the days shortly after the procedure can be a very tender and vulnerable time for the patient and her family. My friend Barbara kept saying that the veils were thin. I think she was referring to the fact that all of her defenses were stripped away and this can be a time where fear and powerlessness are magnified. Be especially gentle and kind with your loved one. This is definitely where a nurturing and gentle caregiver will be preferred over somebody with very little bedside manner. Let that person run errands for you or help in other ways.
4 – Have Food in the House
Do have lots of yummy and nourishing snacks available in the house for the patient after surgery. Don’t assume that the patient only wants to eat soup or bland foods. In fact, I knew Barbara was feeling better on day two when she started fantasizing about lasagna!
5 – Rest
Encourage the patient to have many breaks and to rest quietly. It can get a little overwhelming with friends and family calling, texting, and stopping by. No matter how wonderful it is to be reminded how loved she is, my little Energizer Bunny needed quiet time so that she could recharge. One of my best memories was playing my Dragon Drum for Barbara while she napped. Also in this category, do encourage the patient to take her 3 AM pain pill and go right back to sleep. You do not want her to get chatty, nip that right in the bud. You need your sleep too!
6 – Show Some Emotion
Let yourself have feelings. Your friend will appreciate someone else expressing themselves; it’s not just the patient who is feeling an overwhelming amount of emotion. Once all the forms were signed and Barbara came out of the bathroom in her cloth gown and paper cap, s*** got real and I couldn’t help myself, the tears just flowed. Barbara held my hand and it was a very loving moment. Also, don’t be afraid to share a laugh – always good medicine (where appropriate, see below.)
A lot of these will seem like a giant “Duh!” to most of you but I assure you these were either learned the hard way or witnessed.
1 – Don’t Forget to Eat
Don’t eat the patient’s yummy nourishing snacks! And don’t underestimate how hungry you as the caregiver might get. It’s important to think ahead if you can and if you have that luxury, stock the refrigerator for you as well. When well-meaning friends text and ask what they can bring you can also say that the patient is very hungry and wants chocolate and almonds (even if they’re really for you!)
2 – Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive to Surgery
Do not, repeat do not, let the patient drive herself to the hospital on surgery day with you in the passenger seat. The patient has a lot on her mind and will be distracted. When she tries to back up into a very tiny space it will not go well. Avoid this scenario by insisting upon driving.
3. Laughter is Good Medicine Except When Patient is Nervous/Crabby
Don’t make too many jokes right before surgery. Usually the patient will not appreciate you making references to your giant pimple on your face and asking the surgeon if they have any medical recommendations for you. Once again, the patient will not think this is funny. Neither will the doctor.
4. Let It Roll
Don’t take anything the patient says prior, during, or after surgery personally. A lot of emotions can come up. It’s best to encourage the patient not to make any long-lasting, life-changing decisions in this general window of time. The patient’s mood could be perceived as erratic – something seemingly harmless like a little elderly man pushing a motorcycle up a hill could drive the patient into a murderous rant. Best to just soothingly reassure the patient that you hate that motorcyclist too…there, there. The patient will have almost zero recollection of what they said or asked for. For example when your friend/patient asks you to mince garlic in her lemon water she might actually mean ginger and will look at you like you have sprouted a second head when you ask her if she really wants you to put garlic in her tea. (Actually, as I write this, it occurs to me that this section could be written for perimenopause too…aaack.)
5. Don’t Be A Jerk
In her tender time post-surgery, do not give the patient any books regarding her medical condition or tell her stories about people who have died from the same medical condition. Right? Also in this category, do not judge any type of procedure or follow-up care the patient decides upon afterwards. This may take an attitude of trust on your part, but I assure you most people think long and hard and confer with their doctors and their loved ones before they decide on any follow-up treatments and it is OUR job as a supportive community to love our friends and family members through all of their decisions without judgment or opinion unless asked. And even then, people, use your heads. Remember…this is a tender time. Tread lightly! No bombarding the patient with statistics and medical data.
6. Don’t Forget What a Sacred Window of Time you are Sharing Together
Take as much opportunity as you possibly can in the surprisingly busy days post surgery to reassure your loved one what an absolute gift it is, and continues to be, to spend time with them. To hold their hand, to do their laundry, to steam there garlic tea, to warm up their soup, to stroke their hair, to give them a kiss, to cry with them, to laugh with them, to drive them around, and to just be in their presence. It is a rare gift to share so intimately with another and I am grateful to have had this bonding time with my sweet friend of 26 years.
Huge thank you to my family and friends for supporting me in making this trip happen, kids got shuffled, pet/house sitter bent backwards, drum carrier got fedexed so I could bring it with me on the plane, friends held space for me and said healing prayers for Barbara. I know it’s cliche but it truly takes a village.
Harbin Hot Springs. My soul-home. My screen saver. My compass. My place of healing and refuge. My recurring dream. My holy land. When I arrive, the first thing I do is go to the water spout at the cold plunge and sprinkle water over my head – 7 times – one for each chakra. Then I drink, deeply. I get naked as fast as I possibly can and jump into the swimming pool so I can float on my back and look up at the tall Poplar trees. They are a talisman for me, reminding me to stand strongly rooted in the earth, reach for the sky, and bend gracefully to the breezes that blow. I’m home.
At 25 I was a naive, wide-eyed girl who had just realized my life-long dream of moving to California. It was the Summer of 1990 and a friend brought me up to Harbin. It was love at first sight. And I’ve been going ever since.
I’ve spent half of my life here. I’ve gone in all seasons. I’ve spent New Year’s Eve shivering in the warm pool as it snowed, pulling Tarot cards for the coming year. I’ve camped in the Fall, listening to the acorns, pop like gunshots, as they drop from the mighty oaks and explode on the tent platform. I’ve slept under the summer sky, counting shooting stars, and holed up in hotel rooms listening to the Spring rain.
I’m naked and exposed at Harbin, literally and figuratively. Anything that has been “living” inside of me surfaces. I’ve encountered the Wounded Masculine and the Divine Feminine, I’ve met the Priest and the Whore. All inside of me. Harbin is a portal place, a sacred chakra spot, and in my experience, Harbin provides me with every opportunity to heal whatever is needing to come up. 7 years ago, I was on beta blockers for severe arrhythmia (irregular heart beat) and I was depressed that I needed to be on medication. I hiked up to the tea house with 2 friends and prayed for the “shield to be removed that protected my heart.” I walked back down to the pools and never took another beta blocker again. True story.
In his yoga classes, Peter would refer to the waters of Harbin as mother’s milk and if the pools are Harbin’s breasts, then the waterfall slit in the rocks, along the sacred path, hidden in a tangle of fig roots, is Harbin’s yoni. A place I’ve brought my most raw and unedited prayers to. I’ve come to Harbin at my most tender and broken, taking refuge in the waters. I’ve showed up in my fullest expression of joyful, playful ME. Harbin has received me in all ways, always.
I’ve been a starving student, escaping the San Francisco fog. I’ve been a single woman, a married woman, a young mother. I’ve shared laughter and popcorn in the Harbin kitchen. I’ve knitted on the sun deck, beaded in the Blue Room cafe, I’ve journaled in my tent. Toned in the meadow, I’ve sang, danced, prayed, chanted, sat, meditated, laughed, cried. I brought my children there and camped (which they hated.) I went to the meadow and sat inside a circle I made of my grandparents’ ash, thanking them for their love. Comforted that they will be part of this sacred land.
I can’t count the list of people I’ve gone up to Harbin with – old friends, new friends, women’s groups, boyfriends, husbands. I’ve met poets, artists and strangers that feel like family at Harbin. I’ve had the deepest conversations with people and never seen them again. I’ve gone up by myself and been lonely, I’ve gone with friends and been lonely. I’ve been there alone and felt such contenment and peace, knowing that death could knock on my door and I would rise up gladly and leave immediately – my soul complete and filled with the natural beauty of Harbin’s land.
This year, for my 50th birthday, friends who know and love me gave me money to use at Harbin and I bought a life-time membership. I finally felt ready for commitment (smile.) I got up to Harbin 3 times this year – once for my annual Spring trip with women friends, once for a HAI workshop and R&R and lastly, in July, for some one-on-one time with Barbara, a soul sister who has been coming to Harbin longer than I have and we share a deep and profound love of Harbin as well as laugh our heads off when we’re there.
This past weekend, Harbin was burned in a fire. The text I received on Saturday said it all: “Sis, Harbin is gone.” Pictures of the landscape stand my hair on end. My heart hurts. This fire did not happen to me, I know that. My heart goes out to all the beings (plant, animal, human) that are affected by this major event. And still, I mourn the loss of my temple home. Harbin reconnected me with my past. She is showing me my future. And she taught me to identify, appreciate and require presence.
I know how the sun looks dappling through the giant fig leaves, it is in my cellular memory how the candles flicker in the hot pool, I have sat in the garden lulled by the buzz of the bees in the apple blossoms as I watch dew evaporate off of a blade of grass. My body knows the feeling of the plaster temple floor warming my back. I can close my eyes and hear the night frogs croaking down by the bridge. I can smell the honeysuckle that rings the gazebo. This land, this place is in my DNA. I don’t know what will happen to Harbin, if it will be rebuilt or not. But I can say that if it does get rebuilt, I will care for the land lovingly, with the tenderest of touches, as if I was tending to a beloved hospice patient. I will bathe her body and swathe her in the softest of cloths. I will whisper my gratitude and joy to her, to be able to give back even a portion of what she has given to me. I will thank her for giving me my lover. And I will kiss her softly. Everywhere.
“When we are heavy with the world’s sadness, call to us through Hawk’s cry, reminding us to look up and beyond, trusting in Spirit’s great design.” Tiphaine Bonetti
For years I have related to the hawk and have felt that hawk was one of my special animals. I would have dreams of hawks and sightings – close encounters. There is a connection between Hawk and Kundalini energy, some say hawk comes into your life only after Kundalini energy is activated.
Four years ago, my friend, Lance Gentry, was diagnosed with a stage 4 brain tumor. During the last year of his life, he saw many hawks and started to feel that they were messengers. We had some email conversations about hawk medicine and that’s when I started calling him “Brother Hawk”.
Around this time, Nancy and I would go for hikes and have heart-to-heart discussions about our life. I prayed for my life to have meaning and wished there was something I could do for Lance and his family. Nancy prayed for Lance.
“This powerful bird [hawk] can awaken visionary power and lead you to your life purpose. It is the messenger bird, and wherever is shows up, pay attention. There is a message coming.” from Animal Speak, by Ted Andrews.
In the Spring before Lance’s death, I got to spend more time with him, giving him Reiki and quietly sitting with him. I was able to let all the words I wanted to say to him, and all the love I felt for him flow through my hands, through my touch. His gift to me was that he received that love. We got to communicate without words…and share sacred time together…the biggest exchange of LOVE I had ever experienced with another human being that I wasn’t related to. It was a soul love, without form or expectation.
The day Lance died was a beautiful hot June day. He was at home, in his bed, made peaceful with morphine. A friend of Lance’s stopped by to see him and brought a hawk wing, not knowing that Lance had an affiliation with hawk, but feeling called to do it. Lance died 10 hours later, surrounded by dear friends and Nancy holding him in the bed and his mother by his side.
There was a beautiful ceremony for his life at the Shambala Center – a buddhist center here in town. His body lay in a cardboard casket. He wore his favorite hat and favorite T-shirt that said “Love More, Fear Less”. The hawk wing was placed on his chest. We kept Lance’s body on dry ice for 3 days and friends took turns staying with him so he was never alone, sleeping with him in shifts. It’s hard to describe the holy atmosphere of the place in the middle of the night, sitting in solitude with Lance, candles flickering, watching the room start to lighten with the morning sun.
After Lance died, so many people reported fantastic hawk sightings, myself included. Nancy had one experience with the kids where a hawk came flying right down the middle of the street towards them, at eye level, and flew right past them. They all felt that they had just had a visitation from Lance.
I am missing Lance and really missing that beautiful heart of his. It’s hard to lose something that feels that sweet. I had a dream about Lance the other day, and there he was in my dream, so loving and kind, smiling. It was good to feel him again. One thing I committed to, after Lance died, was to always let the people in my life know how much I love them…Lance taught me about being loving. He taught me that there is beauty and grace in openly loving people and not hiding it. After Reiki he would often say “I love you” and it felt so good to hear it from him. His face was open and radiant and all the love in his heart came pouring out of his eyes.
My morning started at 5. I awoke early to partake in a tourist ritual of a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. As I lay in my bed, part of me wondered why I had wanted so badly to come to Varanasi. It had been a long travel adventure to reach here – with some of the worst driving and shady driver experiences I had ever had in India. Part of me wanted to catch a plane back to a safe and familiar place. The other part of me knew that this is India. She tips me over and uproots me from all that is known. I always feel like I am in outer space and my loved ones are so very very far away. I have learned to ‘notice’ the feelings and stay with them. I remember a friend gently and wisely telling me “You don’t have to always like India.” And so I rose, got dressed and went into the smokey dark to meet our friend and guide and get on the boat.
The “sunrise” never really happened because there was a bank of clouds, but the view from the water of the ghats (stairs) and the city and the people and dogs, cows etc all sharing space on the river was fascinating. Men and women bathing (separately), laundry drying, dogs fighting, bodies burning, Muslim temple bells ringing, sadhus posing for a professional photo shoot with magnifying screens (for real) – it was all surreal.
As our boat approached the main burning ghat, I could see the billows of white smoke rising up. It’s forbidden (rude) to take photos so I was fully present and taking it all in. It’s hard to describe the mountains of wood – this is a 24 hour burning ghat so bodies are burning day and night. There are swarms of men scurrying about bringing more wood, dumping ash into heaps, putting more kindling under the bodies. The buildings closest to the fire are black with centuries of smoke – making the place look like a scene from the darkest movie. Dogs are curled up in the piles of ash to keep warm.
Our boat was front and center, very close and I watched a body, wound in white ceremonial cloth, as it started to burn. I saw the cloth burn away and I could see the man’s feet turn dark and blister in the heat. As close as I get to death in my hospice work, this was a new level of intimacy I have never experienced.
I feel that it will take me days to process this experience, perhaps longer. This city holds an intensity that is hard to describe, as feels right and natural given that death is front and center amidst a city so alive and busy. The contrast is at once dumbfounding and inspiring.
I went back to my hotel to rest and warm up and prepare for the evening’s full moon ceremony Melanie and I had planned. I was feeling drained and tender.
When I first asked friends and family to send me their prayer requests so that I could release them on the Ganges, I never imagined the depth of sweetness I would experience reading people’s heart felt prayers. I was and still am so touched by the honesty and rawness of some of them as well as the good kind hearted earnestness of them as well. What beautiful friends I know who are wanting to make the world and themselves better.
Melanie and I sat in prayer and meditation. Later we bathed and dressed in ritual white. We met Somit, our friend and organizer of the ceremony and he led us to our boat. The boat man and priests and a curious traveler from the UK were already in it. We rowed across the river to the sandbar in the middle. There we got out and waded (yes I put my bare feet in the river in Varanasi) to the sand.
In the twilight we entered into ceremony, making offerings of rice, sandal wood, flowers and coins to Hindu deities and the 9 planets. Prayers for our ancestors, our beloveds, the group of women who will be joining us in a few short days – all were offered to the fire.
As the huge orange full moon rise in the purple sky (India has a way of blowing you away with her beauty) and the sky darkened, dogs crept closer to us, smelling the offerings of food we had. As the priests chanted the centuries old Sanskrit mantras, I closed my eyes and thought to myself “This is why I am in Varanasi. For this moment in time.”
Our boat rowed back across the river as the full moon cast her light across the river and our ritual fire burned on the shore as the dogs gently picked up the small burning dishes and overturned them in the sand to eat the ghee inside.
On Sunday, as I was going through security at DIA, I saw a TSA agent help an elderly man who was struggling with his backpack. It was a busy morning and people were rushing to empty their bins and put their shoes back on, and the man was trying to quickly exit the security area but his backpack strap was tangled and he couldn’t get his arm through. The TSA agent reached over and lifted up the pack so that there was more room to maneuver and the man was able to put his pack on. Tears stung my eyes at this simple act of kindness between strangers.
Last week I sat vigil with a man who was dying. I do this as often as I can, but what was different about this time was that he was conscious. Not just awake but aware. This was a first for me. It’s one thing to walk in as a complete stranger and sit with a person who is dying when they’re unconscious, but to walk in to somebody’s room when they’re alive and present seems presumptious at best and intrusive at worst. In that moment I had to push ego aside (“Will I be good enough?”, “What do I have to offer?”, “Who am I to be here?”) and say a prayer to be of service. To say he was gracious would be an understatment. Welcoming me into his journey, his transition, with a smile and a whispered “hello”, it was his kindness that allowed me to access my highest self and connect on a soul level for a brief period. We prayed together, I stroked his magnificent head and laid my hand on his heart. To love freely, without any thought of past or future, is to truly be present and timeless. The gift was all mine.
I looked up the definition of compassion and learned that it translates as “suffering together.” And it’s not just about suffering – when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people. Compassion generates more compassion. Beautiful.
Yesterday I shared a burden with a friend and she cried for me as I could not. I was numb and all cried out. Even though my heart was heavy, seeing the kindness, the compassion, in her eyes, gave me a sense of peace and I felt lighter, less alone.
“Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion. ”