Grandfather, India

Grandfather, India

I was twenty six years old when I saw

the Himalayan Mountain range for the first time.

I remember how abruptly

it rose from the rice paddies like

a row of hands signaling “STOP!”

“You shall not pass here.”

There is a reason the Hindus believe

their gods reside in the these mountains.

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Only gods would smash a subcontinent into Asia

in an attempt to get the sky’s attention.

Only gods would pull the ether so close

and insist to be kissed by her.

It is the nature of gods to seek residence

in the openness of sky

and there I was flying in it,

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catching a bird’s eye peek of peaks

that seemed to stretch all the way back

to my grandfather’s gaze

the first time he told me these things existted.

In those days his eyes

were my airplane windows

and I, a limb of his Bodhi tree

understood that he had grown up

where the Buddha breathed.

He had lotus blossom hands

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His stories were prayer beads

he strung around my neck

so that he could pull me back

when he saw me drifting

too far from my purpose

For whatever reason,

he saw in me a need;

an aching for the sky

IMG_4741so he produced photo albums

full of beings who knew her best,

Sepia toned images of hands pressed

together in prayer

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Black and white photographs of monks

whose eyes arced like raven wings

gleefully taking to the wind

prayer wheels spinning

to the backdrop of India.

India

the cough of car horns choking

on exhaust, exhausting jaunts

through mazes of people

amazing in their arrangements

flowers arranged in doorsteps

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side stepping copious piles of cow shit

squatting to shit over holes that belched urine smells

smelling jasmine and sandalwood

would travel by rickshaw, plane, train, and taxi

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to watch Himalayan spine

unfurl in long stretches, morning stretching

over my yoga practice, bending over the jumbled

jenga of shoddy construction,

huddling over construction paper

giving crayons to children who’d never colored before

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The color of saris bleeding into vision

like high definition dye, homeless man

dying on the street corner, dead guy by the piss wall,

the 5am call to prayer, the prayer beads, beads of sweat

protesting intense humidity, the soft

swirl of the pilgrim’s hands in the Ganges

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stirring my memory

toward my grandfather

who came to me as if in a dream,

a beam of light planting a seed

that would grow to lead my back

to the land

of my awakening.

-Lyndsey McGuire

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Find Me in India

If I should die soon
Tell my children to look for me in India.

In the prayer bells
Ringing out over the Ganges,
In the tablas beating their rhythm over the
loud speakers,
As the red sun melts into purple sky.

Look for me in the Varanasi sand bar
As the dogs creep closer to the fire.
In the ghee filled bowl burning brightly,
And the flower offerings bobbing drunkenly downstream.

See me in the sari clad women sprinkling Ganga water on strangers, blessing them.

Let them feel my arms wrapping them in each soft shawl they try on, and every white dress they see.

Sip me down in their lime sodas, quenching their search.
Seek not but find me in the tuberose offering at Saraswati’s feet,
Or the monkey’s soft “coo coo” at their door.

Let them find joy in the calf’s jingle bells and the soft white spot on their foreheads.

Step on the soft sand of Rishikesh and know
I was happy here.

-Roxanna Smith

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One Day in Varanasi

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.

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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.

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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.

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Mother India and the River of Love – Part 1

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Before our Women’s Journey to India started, I shared with Nancy that I felt  2 themes were emerging around this trip, based on the few things I was learning from the participants and our itinerary.  The two themes were ‘mother’  and  ‘water’.  I knew we were going to Mother India and I was curious to see all the ways these themes might express themselves to each one of us.  We had chosen to go to places in India that celebrated life, death and rebirth – many of these life/death rituals happened near or in the Ganges river – otherwise known as Mata Ganga (Mother Ganges.)

We landed smack dab in the middle of Durga Puja – a celebration of the Goddess Durga – the mother of the universe, mother of us all.  What a “coincidence”!  The time of Durga Puja is a holy time celebrated throughout all of India.  Sculptures made out of clay are formed in her likeness – a powerful woman with 8 arms – and she is honored for several days with parades and dancing in the streets.  In Varanasi, the beautiful statues are decorated and worshipped, the streets are clogged with processions down to the river, and Durga is sent off in boats to the middle of the Ganges to be set free in the river, clay returning back to mud.

When we arrived in Varanasi, the weather was ominous with frothing white caps on the river that was at a record high and rain lashing at our hotel windows, creating puddles of water that soaked anything left on the floor.  The scene was all too familiar for those of us from Colorado.   We were dismayed to learn that all boat trips were cancelled indefinitely due to dangerous weather conditions.   I stared longingly out my hotel window at the river – Mata Ganga – churning wide, brown and swift, wishing to be on it.

Hotel view, there's water on the marble floor...
Hotel view, there’s water on the marble floor…

The Ganges is considered one of the holiest rivers for Hindus as well as a goddess:  Ganga.  Unlike other goddesses, she has no destructive or fearsome aspect, accepting all and forgiving all.  It is considered an honor to die at the banks of the Ganges if one is a Hindu, and if that is not possible, to be cremated on her banks with the ashes set free in her current.  It was my first time to Varanasi and I had come with the special task of releasing some of my dear friend and world traveler Lance’s ashes into the river.  What with the late monsoon floods, and rains from the typoon happening to the East, I was dubious if I would get the chance to fulfill this task.

Waiting...
Waiting…
more waiting
more waiting

On our last day, we were told that boats could make the trip and we would indeed be able to take our evening ride with a priest (Pujari – one who officiates puja – offerings/ceremony) so that all of us who were releasing ashes (symbolic or otherwise) would be blessed.  The current had finally died down enough so that the boat motors could power their way back up the river once they had drifted down to the burning ghats (the place of cremation in Varanasi that is at the water’s edge.)  Punam told me later that she had prayed “day and night” to make sure we could have our boat ride and I shared that I had been praying too!

Before I left my room at the hotel, I lit some incense and prayed to be present and open for the ritual I was about to participate in.

praying with Lance one last time
praying with Lance one last time

In some ways, it felt like the end of my journey with Lance.  From holding his hand as he slipped into a morphine sleep, to lying with his body in the wee hours of his death, to painting silks that wrapped around his body while he lay in his casket, to honoring his life at his memorial months later, here I was, in a final moment with him, releasing a baggie of ash and bone in India.

heading out, fires in the distance are the crematories
heading out, fires in the distance are the crematories
Burning Ghats
Burning Ghats
puja
puja – offerings

On the boat, a fresh wave of grief hit me and I sobbed in the dark.  The women each held my story about Lance and his family in their hearts and gave me the strength to honor my friend.

After my wave of sorrow passed, came a joyful knowing that Lance would have LOVED knowing his ashes were in the Ganges, in a place that had meant so much to he and Nancy.  I felt lighter and calm.  A nice reminder for me that resistance is really the only thing that causes my suffering.

Rock Star Pujari with Nancy and me, feeling peaceful
Rock Star Pujariji with Nancy and me, feeling peaceful
Joyful…with Somit

 

Do not stand at my grave and weep;

I am not there.  I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow.

I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.

I am the gentle autumn’s rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry:

I am not there.  I did not die.

-Anonymous

Rinka’s Gift

Rinka….The Flower Girl

by Nancy West McGuire

Varanasi, India

February 2008

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It was a birth…that night…lit by the moon…

I had been called here to the banks of the Ganges to be born…some 30 years ago…to a place I had only dreamed of….

Pulsating…energy…excitement….every cell alive…anticipation…joy….alive…and waiting to see…to breathe…on my own…out of the darkness and into the light…..down the narrow canal…that felt like I would never arrive….pushing forward…faster…faster…faster….like the beating of the drums all around me….the thrusting of the hips came faster…quicker…the sound reverberating off the walls that were wrapped around me…pushing, pushing, pushing further and further with only faith and trust to guide me….Rapture…

Smells…people…lights…prayer…joy…sadness…eyes wide open…loud….alive…holy…I had finally arrived…

Overwhelmed…I wept…crying as I was released…from the safety of the womb…into the energy that was electric and alive…and all I could do was cry…as I breathed for the first time…took in all that was there…before my eyes…the color…the air of excitement…the River….

Get on the boat…get on the boat….Confused…I was swept onto the boat…that would take me to a place of perspective…birth and death and rebirth…side by side…naturally…no pretense…raw….

“You must have a flower” she said….”You must”…..as she followed me on to the boat…seemingly, carefully, choosing just the right flower for me…

I got on the boat…and I wept…inconsolably wept…

As I wept…the little girl with the soulful eyes patted the seat next to her on the boat…lit by the full moon…against a backdrop of color, sound, birth, death, spirits rising….as if to say “Come here…rest…sit a spell”….and so I moved to her side…feeling comforted just in her presence….

“Why you crying?”  said the little girl with the big basket of flowers.

“I am crying because I have dreamt of being here…right here for 30 years”  I replied….

The flower girl looked as if she didn’t understand….

I went on….”A dream….I’ve had this dream…for 30 years…and now I’m here…and I can’t believe it…it’s like a really, really big wish.  Have you ever had a dream?” I asked.

“I dream of being a flower girl…here…selling you flowers”

said she with beauty and depth and certainty…

as if she had sat there…

waiting for me…

knowing that I would come…

for 30 years….

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February 2012

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Nancy and Rinka, age 17…married…lives under an umbrella at the Main Ghat…

Join Nancy and me on our Journey to India this October, where we will explore some of the most exciting, potent and spiritual places in India.  Together, we will venture into a world that most Westerners have not seen and meet people that will surely touch your hearts.

Varanasi – second stop on our India trip

Varanasi, as seen from the Ganges
Varanasi, as seen from the Ganges

“Brace yourself.  You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.  Varanasi takes no prisoners.  But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all.”

-Lonely Planet  INDIA

Also known as the City of Life, this is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities.  Pilgrims come to the ghats (steps leading down into the water) lining the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins and to cremate their loved ones.  To die here, in Varanasi, offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) and it is said that when ashes of ancestors are offered into the Ganges, you are erasing 7 generations of karma from the past and 7 generations of karma in the future.  Powerful stuff.  Before I go to Varanasi, I hope to obtain some ashes of my father’s and release them into the swirling waters of the Ganges.

Lonely Planet goes on to say:  “Most visitors agree it’s a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.  Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming.  Persevere.  Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in memory.”

We have such great events planned for Varanasi, including an evening boat ride along the Ganges as well as a sunrise boat ride the following day.  We will be attending a temple aarti (ceremony with song and lamps) and receive a private concert.  My pulse quickens with excitement to visit this holy city.  I know first-hand how surreal India can seem and yet, in the completely unfamiliar and unknown, spirit resides and the veils are thin.  There is absolute potency for amazing experiences in this space of suspended belief.  Can you feel it?