Cutie resting, hanging out … contemplating … meditating on the cornfields and vast midwestern sky
In May, 2015, I moved from the house I had lived in for 8 years to a condominium. My new place is up a flight of 18 steep steps. I soon noticed I felt uneasy, hesitant going down the stairs, and became very mindful, often pausing to take a deep slow breath before taking the first step. Over the next few months I continued to notice this unease, allowing myself to be present to the sensations of discomfort. In October I went to Europe to see Amma and visit relatives in Geneva. When we landed in Barcelona the first thing I noticed through the window of the plane was that there were no buildings in close proximity, and no jetway for us to exit on. Instead, the ground crew rolled up a flight of metal stairs, like in the old days. When I saw these stairs I experienced a huge contraction, fear, a tightness in my being. Breathe, slow down, take your time, pause. At the top of the stairs I did just that. With every step I spoke Amma’s name. Be present. And then again, at the stadium in Granollers where Amma’s programs were held … more steep steps. Some of these seemed pretty rickety so, no matter what, I held to the railing in the middle of the stairs even when someone was coming straight towards me. I was not going to budge! Breathe, slow down, take your time, Amma.
After six days in Cataluña I took the TGV train to Geneva where I was meeting my twenty four year old son Andrew. We were spending a couple of days visiting a cousin I had not seen in nearly thirty years. I arrived on a Saturday evening having made arrangements to spend my first two nights at a flat belonging to a Spanish woman I had never met before.
On Sunday I spent the whole day walking. It was a beautiful, sunny Autumn day and an easy walk from the apartment down to Lake Geneva. I made my way past embassies surrounded by high walls with metal fences and gates. The United Nations complex held mixed messages for me. On the one hand repelling with its very secure looking barricade along the front, and on the other hand inviting with the multi colored flags from numerous nations flapping in the breeze. In my mind’s eye I saw layers of Tibetan prayer flags streaming down from a tall pole high up in the Himalayas, sending prayers for peace and well being across the planet.
I was touched by the abundance of very tall, old trees in this city. Everywhere I looked during my walk I could see these magnificent beings. I felt very moved by a statue of Gandhi on the edge of a park across from one of the embassies. He sits with legs crossed looking down through his spectacles at an open book on his lap. He was surrounded by flowers and offerings left, I am guessing, by grateful admirers.
I walked along the lake for a long while. I was amazed and delighted by its aliveness and the crystal clearness of the water, how visible the rocks were beneath the surface. Memories of passing through this city when I was eight years old. My father, after flying with us from New York to Paris, drove my sister and me to a boarding school up in the mountains. We spent a whole school year there. For me that experience was a huge emotional and physical trauma. On this day I felt very peaceful and at ease as I walked around the park and city.
That evening I met Andrew at the train station. We stopped for dinner before we walked back up the hill to the apartment. When I first arrived the night before I took the bus and had a general idea of which roads to take but when walking Google maps leads one on different routes. Soon we were making our way along dark paths and neither of us had a clue of where we were. We were just following the map on the phone.
It was dark and I took out a small flash light to help me see where I was going. We were chatting away, I can’t remember about what. Suddenly there was a very bright street light shining in my eyes. It was blinding. There was a high wall between the light and us. It cast a shadow on the path leaving it in complete darkness. The flashlight was now useless against the brightness and I turned it off. The next thing I knew I was flat out on the ground. I had no idea what had happened. It was a moment of complete darkness. There was shock and pain. I heard Andrew saying Mom, Mom you okay? I finally grokked that I was laying on the ground and I was hurt. My chin hurt so bad, as did the palms of my hands. My right knee and hip felt like they had been yanked into an angle they didn’t want to go to. I remember saying something about my chin hurting. I reached up to touch it and felt a hard lump. It didn’t make sense. I had no idea what this was. I tugged and something came out followed by blood. A small rock was embedded in my chin. Both my chin and right palm were bleeding. Somewhere in my mind I remembered that buried in my day pack were some paper napkins I collected from Starbucks in the event of something unexpected happening. Andrew found them, handed me a few and told me to just sit there, rest and apply pressure to the cuts. Just sit there Mom, breathe, breathe, take your time. There was nobody around, it was late, I didn’t know where we were but I knew I had to get up and get moving again. By now I was aware of the pain in my right knee and hip. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t find a way to get on my legs. It’s like I didn’t know how. It was such an unfamiliar, bizarre sensation. With Andrew taking my right arm and pretty much lifting me I somehow got on my feet.
We started walking. Andrew guiding us with his phone, repeating periodically keep applying pressure Mom. The few pharmacies we came across were closed. How much longer m’ijo? Twelve minutes Mom. And again How much farther m’ijo? Ten minutes Mom. And once more How are we doing? About eight minutes Mom. And suddenly I recognized where we were. We turned on to the street where we were staying. Just a few more blocks to go.
As soon as we arrived and I saw my chin in the mirror I knew it was bad. There was no way I could clean this up. It was too friggin painful and the palm of my right hand was also a mess. I told Andrew I couldn’t do it. It was close to midnight and we decided to wake our host and ask her where the nearest emergency room was. As soon as she saw what had happened she insisted on driving us.
Sometime later I am laying on a hospital table, and the doctor covers my face with a sheet of paper in which he’d cut out a hole for my chin. It’s hard to breathe. I feel like I am suffocating The shots are going to hurt, he says. And they do, both of them. Off the charts painful, and then the stitches. Andrew standing by my left foot, holding it. Offering his mala for me to hold, reminding me to chant my mantra. All I know in this moment is excruciating pain. Just wanting it to stop. The doctor saying c’est rien, c’est rien, as sounds of pain come out of me even though he told me to keep my mouth still. After the second time of hearing him say this I can’t stand it anymore and I don’t care if I move my mouth or not. Stop saying it’s nothing. It IS something, it hurts a lot! All you have to do is acknowledge that it hurts! With the next shot, as I cry in pain he says yes it hurts, it does hurt. This time I hear the gentleness in his voice. I feel my body relax, some of the tension dissipates as my experience is acknowledged. A felt sense of being seen, of empathy. Compassion! I think of all the young children, teenagers and adults around the world who cry in pain and are told, c’est rien, no es nada, it’s nothing … arrête de pleurer, deja de llorar, stop crying! How we shut down, store this pain in our bodies, in our souls. Until one day this very young inner part feels loved and cared for by me, feels safe enough within myself to yell out STOP! I hear Pema Chödrön’s teachings on the Buddhist practice of Maitri, loving kindness and friendship towards ourselves. Moments of acceptance, love and understanding for ourselves.
As I lay on the table my mind races around, wanting to understand, to make sense of it all. How did I get here? How did this all happen? Then instances, maybe seconds of being flooded with thoughts and images of Amma. Amma, what did you mitigate? This happens here in Switzerland, the place that holds one of my earliest childhood traumas and where I haven’t been in nearly thirty years! And I’m only here for three days! Amma, how are you holding my whole life? Years ago a friend who is a Krishna devotee said to me: I truly believe that not a blade of grass moves without the Lord willing it.
When the procedure was over and the doctor was leaving my legs were shaking. It felt so good, such a relief to release the energy that had built up in my body. The medical staff were not comfortable with seeing my legs shake. It seems they were worried about my being in shock, so I was given a pill to stop the shaking. As I write this my whole body goes into contraction, shuddering as it remembers the pain, still wanting to shake it all out. Just like injured animals, our bodies want to release trauma and stress through shaking.
Earlier, when Andrew and I were walking back to the apartment, I knew without a doubt that my falling was something that was meant to happen. No matter how careful I was, nothing I could have done would have prevented this from occurring. I was meant to experience this. I felt it in my body, in my whole being. In these moments I had glimpses of understanding karma and the Guru’s grace. I experienced my fall as ‘prasad’, a gift from my Guru. No matter how vigilant I could be there was a moment, a very precise and choreographed moment, when on this smooth even path there was a single step that I could not see, that I was blind to. One step. I didn’t even see myself falling. I have no memory of the sensation of it. One moment I was walking and the next I was flat on the ground, my right leg twisted, a rock stuck in my chin.
I have often heard that we manifest our thoughts. What I am experiencing now is that our higher selves, the part of us that is beyond shape and form knows what is ahead for us, and is constantly communicating this information to our earth body beings. That we often label this knowing as intuition. It can be a felt sense, an image, a thought, a feeling, something someone says or does. It can be anywhere from so subtle, barely palpable, to loud and unmistakable. A quiet, whispered thought in the confines of my mind, or a loud external shout that startles. Expansive moments of understanding the continuum of my lives and with this the omniscience and omnipresence of the Guru. That Amma has always been with me in some form or other, and that she knows everything about me, past, present and future.
With these glimpses of seeing and understanding I remembered the story about Krishna and Yashoda, the mother who raised him. As a young boy Krishna was very playful and liked to play pranks. On this one day Yashoda catches Krishna playing with, and eating sand. She tells him to open his mouth for her to see the sand. At first he refuses and she insists. When Krishna opens his mouth she sees the Seven Oceans and the entire universe. She is so overcome by this sight that she faints. In that moment she had a glimpse, and understood who Krishna was.
The day after I fell, the term “little deaths” from Elisabeth Kübler Ross kept coming to me, and I understood my experience of falling as a ‘little death’. I was also aware of my son, how he showed up. I felt his strength, the presence he held throughout this whole experience. I could imagine how difficult this was being for him. It seemed like a pivotal transition in our relationship, something we were meant to experience as part of our karmic journey.
And, just in case I didn’t fully grasp, and needed a clear blatant reminder of Amma’s presence… the woman whom I had previously never met, who drove Andrew and me to the hospital and then waited to drive us back to her apartment, who held me with so much care, who, as we were leaving hugged me and gave me arnica and other remedies to help manage the pain, her name… Amparo.
In English… Refuge.
This summer, while on Amma’s US tour I connected with a friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. David was limping and his arm hung by his side, his hand semi closed. I wondered if he’d had a stroke. He told me he was out walking his dogs and they lunged towards another dog. He got caught in the leashes and landed on his chin. He had severe injuries, bruised his spinal cord, and required very painful surgery on several vertebrae in his neck. He is now doing a lot better. There but for the grace of God go I.
At the end of our time together David told me this experience was very humbling for him because he now needs to rest more and ask people for help. We talked about the Guru’s gift (prasad), Amma in our lives, the mystery of it all.
Aum Amriteshwaryai Namah
Recently I watched a documentary about the street photographer Vivian Maier. She lived in Chicago from the mid 1950’s to mid 90’s. She was unknown as a photographer and left behind over a hundred thousand negatives and many boxes of undeveloped film.
John Maloof, a film maker, discovered several boxes of these negatives at an estate sale. He became intrigued by who Vivian was and the documentary Finding Vivian Maier is about his journey to learn more about her and bring her work to light. I found Vivian’s story fascinating and I highly recommend this film.
At one point in the film the photographer Joel Meyerowitz talks about the Rolleiflex camera which Vivian used. With the view finder on the top he described it as a “disguise camera”. One where there is an openness between photographer and subject, where direct eye to eye contact is possible.
As I listened to his words memories of Sonia, my mom, came rushing in. I remember her standing facing me. Her Rolleiflex hanging from a strap around her neck. The camera cupped in her hands, her feet slightly apart and pointing in. She would look down into the view finder, make a few adjustments, then look straight at me, her head slightly tilted to the side as her finger released the shutter time and time again. All this while continuing the conversation uninterrupted. It was like a dance. I can see her so clearly.
Mom came to the US at the end of WWII. My sister was born the last day of 1947, I followed in February 1950. I have no idea how my mom got into photography, no memory of this story. I remember hearing that she studied with a photographer in New York. My memory is that his work included the art of retouching final prints to remove unwanted objects that distracted from the essence the photographer wanted to convey in her/his image. I think of these artists and their work as being the predecessors of Photo Shop. Decades before this application was even conceptualized by software engineers at Adobe. I think it was in the early 50’s that my mom entered a photography competition in New York. I have a distant memory of being in my early twenties and Mom showing me the photo with which she won a prize. The original black and white photograph was of a street scene, maybe in Paris. I don’t remember it clearly but there, behind the tableau that my mom wanted to capture, sticking out like a sore thumb was an electrical wire, or was it a pole? At any rate, whichever one it was, in the final version of the print the object is gone without leaving a trace.
For several years during the 50’s Sonia photographed children. Once a year she would spend all day hanging out taking photographs of them as they went through their day. After that she spent hundreds of hours retouching the prints and putting together an album for the parents: A day in the life of your child/children. She would go back and visit these families every year.
Mom spent hours which turned into days with a very soft, fine tipped brush painstakingly dabbing tiny specks of shades of grays, from the darkest to the lightest, blending an area of the photograph over the part to be removed. Often there would be tiny specks of white on the photo, maybe marks left from dust or something on the lens and she would retouch each and everyone of them. As if she were painting in black and white pointillism. From my own experience as a painter and photographer I can imagine how over the years this work, along with hundreds if not thousands of hours she spent doing needlework, would have strained her eyes. Eventually she stopped doing both of these art forms. I wonder if this focusing, this being very much in the present was a form of meditation for her. I hope it was.
One of my deepest regrets today is that I don’t have any of her early photographs. I did a Google search for her and some of her later work, her self published books, came up but nothing from the early days. She gave me my first camera, her old Nikon. She had moved on to the newer Nikon and the Hasselblad which she had so much fun with. She loved being able to switch films! And the old Rolleiflex was always nearby in case she wanted to use it.
Sonia early 1970’s – photo Arati
Arati mid 1970’s – photo Andrew B.
I remember Mom, the photographer, the hours she spent in her dark room at the back end of the basement in Plandome, outside of New York City, while my sister and I built forts and played pretend grocery store in the basement. In this moment the acrid sweet smell of developer chemicals is present in my nostrils and the back of my throat. How amazing is this! Her fingers would be stained from the chemicals. Memories of the dark room, the red light, the white trays and the photos floating in them. She would gently move them around and then lift them up to hang from a string or wire that ran the length of the room. There was something magical about that dark room to which entry was by invitation only. Once we moved and had resettled in Mexico City Sonia no longer developed her own films. She found a lab and worked for years with the owner. I don’t recall his name but I do remember that his fingers too were always stained and his shop had that sweet acrid smell. I imagine that he was one of the few people with whom my mom could really share her love of photography, the intricacies of the whole creative process. On a few occasions I went with her to the lab. She and this gentleman would have lively, in depth conversations. It was as if my mom were in her element. There was a sense of aliveness in her, of being engaged, inspired.
A few days after watching Finding Vivian Maier I went on one of my usual walks in a nearby park. There are several playing fields and a dirt track that runs the length of one of them. In one section the track is bordered on one side by a row of redwood trees, and on the other by a row of concrete poles with electrical wires. I found the perspective and the juxtaposition between man made and nature’s trees startling and inspiring. I played around with this image for several days. Going back at different times, different light, clicking away on my iPhone 6s. I’m aware of how I develop a relationship with the subjects that I photograph. A sense of presence, of being with, of connecting. Once the images were on my computer I went through the usual process of sorting and sending some to the trash. Finally I came up with one that spoke to me more than the others. It drew me in. As I looked at it I felt a bodily sense of balance, centeredness. Beyond words I knew this image held the essence of the experience I wanted to express.
It was during this time that once again I thought of Mom, I felt her presence so strongly. And…. well, I will let the photographs speak for themselves. I offer them in memory of Sonia, to her creativity, talent, and the beautiful images she captured and transformed.
Trees n T’s
Final version ‘retouched’ in Adobe Lightroom.
Thank you Mom for the inspiration.
Note: Mourning Redwoods is a continuation of this piece
Mi’ijo, my son,
I sit holding you as we glide back and forth in the middle of the night.
You are so tiny.
You fit, with space to spare, between the arms of the gliding chair.
This quiet room merges into the soundlessness of the outside world.
As I watch you breathe I sink into the stillness.
Such peacefulness, my heart opens, precious, vulnerable.
My Dad died in ’86. I kept some of his old shirts.
The ones with his initials stitched on the breast pocket.
Wanting to keep him close.
They were so large I didn’t think I would ever wear them.
Then, five plus years later you came, and these old blue shirts fit perfectly.
And I sit and glide, night after night, holding you as you nurse and fall back to sleep.
As if my Dad, who never got to see you, were now holding both of us tenderly.
My heart expands as I write.
I feel so moved.
Tears of gratitude making their way into my eyes.
Where do tears come from?
Life is so precious.
The sound of our breathing, separate yet overlapping, yours a bit faster and more shallow.
In sync with our gliding.
Gentle, rhythmic, fluid, and quiet.
Endless space from the depth of my being as it blends with yours, then the room,
to the place outside the window, past the hills, into the night sky.
I kneel before you.
Your face so close as you hug the person in front of me.
Your deep brown eyes catch mine for a moment of eternity.
Your left hand on their right shoulder, just inches away, draws me like a magnet.
It seems so soft and gentle.
I feel the caress it holds.
Could I be a feather or a light breeze
as I slowly reach up and barely, as delicately as possible,
let my finger tips touch your hand.
Time stretches out as I bring them back to touch my forehead and lips.
Wanting this moment to last forever.
My heart expands as if it would burst.
Waves of gratitude.
I am now in front of you.
You smile and pull me towards you,
My face buried in your chest.
I sink in.
Your voice in my ear …..daughter, daughter, daughter.
The universe opens up and once again I glide into the quiet, endless night.
The dark, deep sky illuminated by stars.
You are the universe and we are all your stars.
Tenderness, compassion, belonging, peace, acceptance
Can I remember that all this lives in me?
Driving down the freeway at rush hour.
Waiting in line at the café.
Sitting in a restaurant overhearing a conversation laden with judgments and evaluations.
Having a difficult interaction with my now twenty four year old son.
Pause, breathe, touch the quiet place, the night sky, the stillness.
The wonder of our humanity.
That I may be all of this
Written for Challenge for Growth Prompt #5: I am Love