Freedom’s Just Another Word…

I woke up this morning from a convoluted, vividly scary dream where I was wandering, shoeless, on a dark city street in a seedy part of town.
It was the witching hour — fading day cast grotesque shadows on dimly lit sidewalks.
A nameless, faceless city, made more anonymous by the quality of light — murky, film noirish, gaslit-at-dusk menacing.

It could have been Bombay in the 60′s, or parts of Vancouver now.

I knew no-one there whom I could call for help.
My wallet lay on my dresser at home — no money for a taxi or hotel.
And I had forgotten the address of the place where I was supposed to go.

Then, this song — which I used to sing with my kids, and which (I think) is a South African folk song that became an anthem in the anti-apartheid movement — played over and over in my head:

We are go-oing.
We are going.
Don’t know where we’re going but we’ll get there.
Don’t know when we’ll get there but we will!


Nine years ago, today…

I woke up that September morning, nine years ago today, with a stiff neck and a sore right hip from sleeping on the couch in my cousin Dinaz’s living room. My fifty-two-year-old body, unaccustomed to narrow, hard mattresses and the slope of couch cushions, ached. Dinaz’s apartment in midtown Manhattan was air conditioned and so cold that I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders even though it was still summer and in the high nineties outside. I opened the blinds and blinked against the dazzle of sun. Fourteen stories below, the street was a narrow canyon shadowed by tall buildings.

Turning away from the window, I looked down at my son James, asleep on his bed of quilts on the floor. Sunlight gilded the soft down on his cheeks, limned his eyelids, and touched the tips of his long, black lashes. At thirteen, he had the voice and body of a man, but his face was a child’s: open, naked, vulnerable; all curves and roundness.

Let him sleep, I prayed to the goddess of children; let him be happy. He had been so sad since his dad and I had separated, six weeks earlier.

His eyelids trembled. I held my breath and watched him, knowing I ought to wake him. We planned to leave early, that morning, to get in as much sightseeing as we could. We were going to take the elevator up to the observation tower at the World Trade Centre, so we could see all of New York laid out beneath us.

James and I lived in Nanaimo at that time–a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island. When my cousin called to invite us to visit her in New York, I knew we had to go. Both of us needed to find out where we belonged, in a world that had shifted on its axis that summer.

Dinaz rushed out of her bedroom, dressed for work in a gray suit, briefcase clutched in one hand. Her lovely face was ash pale, her mouth a twist of grief.

“Turn on the TV,” she said. “Turn on the TV.”

The sound of her voice woke James, who looked dazed and sat up in bed. Dinaz put an arm around his shoulder. The three of us stared in silence at the unthinkable events exploding on the screen. Dimly, I heard Dinaz’s heels click on the hardwood floor, and turned to see her disappear into her small kitchen. She called to us from there, raising her voice so we could hear her over the sound of the TV.

“Don’t go outside at all today,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. There’s lots of food in here. I’m going to the office to take care of my staff.” Most of her staff lived in the boroughs-New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens. She didn’t know how long they’d be stranded in Manhattan, and she wanted to be prepared. She packed sandwiches for them in a large brown paper bag, added a thermos of tea and packages of biscuits. “I’ll see them safely home,” she said.

What was safe any more, I wondered. Where was home?

We watched it on TV, over and over. The plane heading straight for the building. The explosion. And, unbelievably, the second plane, the roiling flames. Fire. And smoke. Fire and smoke.

And bodies falling.

“They’re jumping from the eightieth floor,” gasped the announcer. His voice cracked and blurred. They had to choose. Jump or be roasted alive.

I thought: I know something of how this feels. Teetering on the ledge, caught between two impossibilities. Until the pressure at your back makes the unthinkable inevitable. And you jump because you can no longer bear the alternative.

James kept saying: “This is real, Mum. It’s on TV but it’s for real.” His voice was tinged with awe, disbelief, a thrill of excitement.

I thought: What had been going through the minds of those people on the planes? The people who had boarded their flight that morning, thinking they had time. When did they realize their lives were suddenly complete, that they would not get to erase or redress the past, or create a future? What was left of love or meaning as the buildings hurtled towards them?

And those men and women sitting at their desks, drinking their morning coffee when death came crashing like a meteor through their windows. Those who were killed by the blast. Those who jumped from the Twin Towers to escape the flames.

That day in Manhattan, we watched history explode on the screen as the Twin Towers were destroyed, over and over, on every TV channel. I wanted to do something, anything-but police spokesmen on TV were asking people to stay out of the downtown area.

The fear and uncertainty in New York that day mirrored my own feeling of having lost a layer of skin; the whole country was waking up to the fact that we were all vulnerable, that there was no immunity, no safety anywhere, no permanence, nothing predictable, nothing we could grasp or control. There was only life in all its sprawling, savage beauty; only human beings acting out of fear or love or greed, out of the desire to keep their children safe or the longing to shape their own destiny.

Human beings massacring each other to avoid feeling the cold breath of their own mortality.

It was our own deaths we saw in those images of burning buildings and falling bodies. And all our posturing and attempts at self-protection could not prepare us for how or when Death would finally arrive.

James kept flicking the TV from channel to channel, hoping to find something other than the terrible newscasts of the day. But most of the channels were blank because the main TV receivers had been on top of the World Trade Center towers and had been destroyed.

Eventually, we dressed and took the elevator downstairs. The doorman, sitting disheveled and red-eyed on his stool, didn’t look at us as we walked through the revolving doors.

Outside, people lounged on the benches that lined the perimeter of the building. Eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, smoking-the usual office lunchtime crowd. The Tuesday morning garbage pickup had been cancelled, and garbage was stacked all along the curb.

On Second Avenue, people walked briskly along the sidewalks. Large sections of the road were cordoned off, and there were few cars. Uniformed policemen were stopping buses and ordering the passengers to get out. The buses slid away, empty, their doors shutting with a hiss like a released breath. Many of the passengers were elderly and looked lost and frail as they stood in the middle of the road, trying to get their bearings. A white-haired woman put her arm around a young girl in a blue jumper, and led her to the safety of the sidewalk. Someone cried. James and I walked past a Lebanese deli, a Chinese grocery store.

Across the street, Forty-fourth was cordoned off at First Avenue by an orange municipal truck parked askew across the crosswalk. Behind it was the UN Plaza, surrounded by police cars and military trucks.

The adrenalin that surged through my body then was oddly familiar. Calcutta, 1970. The city teemed with terrorists: Naxalites, who belonged to a Marxist-Leninist splinter group, many of them young boys no older than James. They slid through the crowded streets carrying homemade petrol bombs under ragged clothing. No-one knew where the next bomb would come from, or where it would land.

In the bazaars and bustees, in the streets and slums of Calcutta, people huddled together and talked in whispers about the random violence that menaced the city. Who would be blown up next? Was it safe to go to the sweetmeat vendor’s, to the greengrocer’s? Earlier, two policemen had been shot with their own rifles. It was fate, people said, wagging their heads Indian-style. Karma.

Then the central government declared a state of emergency, and the tanks rolled out. More people died.

So that afternoon in New York, I knew better than to stop and stare. Because I grew up in India, because I lived in Calcutta during the Naxalite terrors and witnessed the bloody birth of Bangladesh, fear was etched on my DNA. I knew the rules of survival: keep your head down, but stay alert for any sudden movements-an arm emerging from a coat pocket, a man slouching over a railing, anything that makes your stomach tighten. Don’t run; walk quickly through the crowd, try to stay in the middle, away from men in uniforms. Blend in, disappear, be invisible; above all, be invisible.

I held James by the arm, afraid of losing him in the crowd. He announced loudly: “I’m hungry. I hate New York! I want to go home.”

I tightened my grip on his arm and hissed, “Shut up. Just walk, don’t look up.”

I looked quickly around to see if anyone had heard. Police. Authorities. Men in uniform who carried guns. How could I keep him safe, my North American son, who spoke his heart out loud? He lacks my genetic alarm, my birthright of necessary fear.

He said, again, with a teenager’s petulance, “But Mum, I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”

“James, shut up! There are men here who’ll shoot you because you’re brown. And young. And male. They don’t know who you are, and they don’t care. All they’ll see is the color of your skin, your black hair and brown eyes. You can’t just . . . blurt out whatever you feel.”

“Why not?” he demanded, this child of new world privilege.

“Because they’ll have you down on the pavement with a gun pointed at your head.” (I could see this as I said it, see him lying helpless, face down.)

This he understood, my child of television land. He has seen more cop shows than I will ever see.

But I have seen tanks chewing up the streets of Calcutta. I have seen a flood of refugees inundating a city so crowded it was in danger of tipping into the sea. Ten million refugees, the newspapers said, from East Pakistan.

Radio and news reports talked of families drowned in rice paddies red with the blood of wives and husbands and children.

Homes torched. Homes made of mud and straw and clay, coated with cow dung, thatched with dried fronds of coconut palms. Homes that burn. So easily destroyed.

I remember going to Howrah station to catch a train to Delhi and seeing thousands of refugees packed together on the platforms: old men in dirty dhotis, women still trying to keep their faces covered with the ends of ragged saris, children with terrified eyes, all huddled together on the cold, filthy platforms because their world had been destroyed by men with tanks and guns and flaming torches. They had nothing left, nowhere else to go.

So much of the world lives with the everyday reality of war. Bangladesh. Iraq. Tibet. Rwanda. Bosnia. Somalia. Afghanistan. What made us think we could remain immune?

Still holding onto James’s arm, I walked quickly up Second Avenue. All the stores were closed. Only a few small delis and corner grocers remained open, manned by brown-skinned men accustomed to doing business in the midst of chaos.

People stood on the sidewalk and stared at the sky, which was brown and oily with smoke; an acrid reminder, if we needed one, of the Towers still smoldering only a few blocks away.

We turned west on Fifty-Seventh Street, then south, down Third Avenue. Third is a one-way street and that afternoon it was jammed with traffic heading uptown. Cars, trucks, SUV’s, bikes, a few taxicabs. No buses. Exhaust fumes mingled with the smoke, searing my throat. Traffic was gridlocked as far south as I could see.

No-one honked. In all that traffic, not one honking horn. Terrorism silences everyday sounds, in New York as in Calcutta.

The sidewalk was a river of people flowing uptown. Some talked on cell-phones as they walked. Others stood, looking stunned, marooned, listening to the radio at news kiosks. Couples walked hand in hand, refugees in tailored suits.

James and I pushed against the press of bodies; we were the only ones walking towards downtown. Refugees of another kind, heading in the wrong direction, against the flow; the others all fleeing away from the disaster area. That’s what they were calling it on the portable TV at the corner news kiosk: The Disaster Area. The announcers looked as ravaged as everyone else.

There were armed police clustered at each of the four corners of every single street we crossed. And MPs, marines, National Guard, FBI, talking into radios and cell-phones, wearing side arms with unbuttoned holsters. Many of them carried bigger guns: rifles, machine guns, automatic weapons.

The Stars and Stripes fluttered everywhere, symbol of solidarity and patriotism, Americans closing ranks against an uncommon enemy. Flags draped over the sides of office buildings, flying from the antennae of police cars, even one full-sized flag drooping over the back tire of a shiny black Harley which idled in the stalled traffic.

Around Fiftieth Street, a sporting goods store was open for business; people crowded through its front doors. Curious, James and I followed. Inside, a tangle of men and women in business suits trudged up the stairs. James and I climbed up behind them, wondering what we would find.

The sign on the second floor read: Athletic Shoes. The room was cavernous, a warehouse packed with shoppers grabbing shoes off tables and shelves which were by then almost bare. People hurried past us, cradling three, four, five boxes of shoes in their arms.

I thought: there must be a fire sale. I wondered why anyone would have a sale on that disastrous day, but found myself looking around for shoes for James. The only shoes left were either too small or too big, or so geeky that James gagged and rolled his eyes when I held them up. Eventually, we gave up and headed back downstairs.

On the main floor we browsed through racks of T-shirts and fleece pants, Nike-wear and sleek black Danskin leggings. There was something surreal about shopping while thousands of people lay dead or dying only a few miles away. But it was mindlessly comforting too, like chewing gum, or watching TV; except that watching TV had suddenly become an activity fraught with anxiety.

So we shopped. James picked out a pair of black shorts. We stood in line along the cashier’s counter.

The woman beside me leaned forward at an odd angle, as though she were struggling to stay upright in a high wind. She seemed to be in her mid-thirties, with chin-length ash-grey hair in a blunt, swingy cut. Her face was carefully made up, marble-like in its stillness; her blood-red fingernails matched her lipstick. Still, there was something slightly off-kilter about her. She wore a short pinstriped skirt with a crisp matching jacket, but the hem of the jacket had come undone, and her gray sheer stockings were torn at the shins. I looked down at her feet, which were clad in brand-new Nike runners. Her left hand dangled at her side, holding a pair of black patent-leather pumps, covered in ash. Her hand trembled. She looked fragile as a moth.

I asked, “Are you all right?”

She looked blankly at me then, her face very still before she spoke.

“I just came from there,” she said, slowly, her voice rusty and hoarse, as though she had forgotten how to speak. “I walked the whole way.”

She smelled of smoke, and diesel fumes, and fear. A sharp smell that crept under my skin and brought the blood whooshing into my ears.

“I want to go home,” she said, her voice tremulous, on the verge of tears.

I stroked her back. What could I offer her but the touch of my hand?

Her body quivered as she mumbled, “I’ve got forty more blocks to walk. I just want to get home.”

I wanted to put my arms around her, cradle her close, comfort her as though she were James; as though I could keep her safe. I wanted to say: come home with us, we’ll take care of you; we live just around the corner. But this was New York, and Dinaz’s apartment was not my home.

I stroked her back gently and drew James closer. “Can I help?” I asked. “Would you like us to walk with you?”

She shook her head. Ash flew off her hair onto the back of my hand.

I felt her shock and exhaustion in my body. “I’ll pray that you get safely home,” I told her, love and grief and the yearning to keep her safe in my voice, in my hands.

I realized then that I’d known all along where I belong. I belong wherever love and kinship fill my heart.

I had thought that being home meant being rooted like a tree in geography and genetics. But instead my roots are the roots of the lotus, floating wherever the currents of life take me.

I can offer love and friendship wherever I am. And receive, in turn, the gifts that life brings in such abundance, in the midst of terror, destruction and the fire’s heat.

The woman with the ash-covered shoes turned and walked away, giving us a half wave as she left.

We paid for James’s shorts and walked out of the air-conditioned store into the sweltering heat of the afternoon.

Hungry and exhausted, we threaded our way through the crowd, back to the cool refuge of Dinaz’s apartment. I sank into the couch and put my feet up on the coffee table, while James rummaged in the refrigerator and emerged with a slice of pizza, which he folded in half and stuffed into his mouth.

We leaned against each other on the couch, and waited for Dinaz to come home.

…………………………………………..

This post was first published on my blog on September 11, 2009.

Remembering Hiroshima

On August 6th, 1945-65 years ago today-the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. An estimated 140,000 people died in the aftermath. Today, the city of Hiroshima leads the movement for world peace. I am proud to be named for this city, which has transformed a legacy of unimaginable suffering into the ongoing work of peace-making. This is my tribute to Hiroshima; to those who died in the world’s first nuclear holocaust, and to those who live there today.

This post was first published on my blog on August 6, 2009, and is re-published today in honor of the citizens of Hiroshima.

 

I was born in Bombay in 1949; four years after the world’s first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima. My mother was getting dressed to go for a walk with her sister, my aunt Amy. Before she had finished putting on her sari, I arrived.

My aunt, who was a physician, delivered me into the world on my parents’ four-poster bed. Afterward, she said with a laugh: “This baby came out like an atom bomb. Let’s name her Hiroshima!”

She was joking, of course. My aunt was a happy, sunny, woman who loved to laugh. My father had a sense of humor too-he named me Hiroshima. Years later, when I asked him why, he said: “So what happened there will be remembered.”

For most of my childhood, my name was a boulder in my small belly. Nobody knew how to pronounce it. And no-one else had a name that carried such a weight of death and destruction.

More than eighty thousand people died in Hiroshima that morning of August 6th, 1945. Many thousands more died of radiation poisoning in the years that followed.

I carried this knowledge inside me like a secret.

When I was ten years old, I won an international essay contest co-sponsored by UNESCO, the Japan-India Friendship Foundation, and the Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun. In my essay, I wrote about my name-for the first time, I wrote about what it meant to me.

That October, accompanied by an escort, I flew to Tokyo for a month-long tour of Japan, as the UN’s child ambassador.

We spent the first two weeks in Tokyo, and made brief visits to Nikko, Osaka, and Kyoto. Because this was an “official” trip, there were banquets and television cameras, media interviews, ribbon cuttings and visits to schools every day.

And there were many awkward, tender, painful moments.

Everywhere we went, people heard my name and broke down in tears. Most people we met had lost someone they loved in the holocaust that was Hiroshima.

In the third week of our stay, we finally flew to Hiroshima. As the plane began its descent, I peered through the small window, expecting to see a moonscape, bleak and sere. Shockingly, I saw a city like any other-as modern and faceless as Tokyo.

The skyline bristled with tall, boxy buildings. The streets were laid out in a neat grid and teemed with traffic. The only intimation that this was a landscape destroyed by the world’s first atomic bomb fifteen years earlier was a tangle of blackened steel girders which, from the air, looked like a giant sculptured rose.

This was ground zero-the exact spot above which the atom bomb had exploded.

Everything else seemed to have been cleaned up and rebuilt so completely, it was hard to believe there had ever been a nuclear conflagration here.

We landed at a modern airport and were driven through busy streets to a beautiful, Japanese-style hotel.

A hundred thousand people died here, I reminded myself, as we walked through the elegant lobby. But the face of Hiroshima I saw that morning was the face of a porcelain doll, smooth and flawless.

Later that day, we were taken to visit the A-bomb hospital. There, I met a young girl who looked about my age. Our interpreter told me she was much older. Her body, covered in purplish-red keloids, had stayed as small as she’d been in 1945, when the radiation seared her and left her with the cancerous growths that made it impossible for her to lie in a bed. She slept, ate and lived in a woven hammock in her hospital room.

And she made paper cranes, for peace.

The cranes hung from the ceiling of her room, beautiful birds in rainbow colors, poised at the brink of flight.

I no longer remember that girl’s name, but I remember her eyes, their bright darkness. I remember her hands, small and gnarled, which created such beauty, the illusion of space and air and freedom.

When we returned to our hotel that afternoon, I went straight to bed. And slept, dreamlessly, until my escort woke me hours later for dinner with the mayor.

On our last day in Hiroshima, we were driven out to the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, where I was to give a speech to several hundred school children.

The memorial is a graceful concrete arch. It shelters a black stone cenotaph on which are inscribed the names of those who died in the bombing. On the face of the cenotaph is an inscription in Japanese. Our interpreter translated: “Let all the souls here rest in peace. We shall repeat this evil no more.”

A little while later, he led me up a flight of small wooden stairs to a podium. A microphone was lowered in front of me. Solemn, moon-faced Japanese kids stood in tidy rows, their dark eyes fixed on mine.

I said moshi-moshi, and the children bowed and smiled-beautiful gap-toothed smiles. Shining eyes. Shining black hair. There was clapping.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known what I would say. But as I looked at those bright faces, a crane opened its wings in my heart.

I spoke of what it meant to me to be in the place that was my namesake. How I had imagined it for so many years, growing up thousands of miles away in Bombay. How, in my dreams, I had heard people dying. People screaming and begging for mercy, for water. For an end to their pain.

Until I came to Hiroshima, I hadn’t understood those childhood dreams. I’d woken up many nights with my heart pounding, feeling a desperate need to help somehow. Not knowing who those people were.

Now, here they were-the very people who had survived those nightmares. My heart was full. These were the people who had lost everything they loved. Who had forged a monument to peace in the crucible of the fire.

The Japanese translator faltered, a few times, as I spoke. His translation seemed to get briefer, his voice became a slender thread that stretched out behind mine, and then broke. I turned to him, shaken out of my trance. Tears glimmered on his cheeks.

My own face was wet too.

There was a long silence.

Then the adults whispered to the kids. The children sang Sakura in clear, high voices. The Cherry Blossom Song.

Two solemn-faced kindergarteners walked up the steps to the podium with their teacher. All three of them bowed, and presented me with an exquisite Japanese doll in a glass-fronted wooden box. The doll’s porcelain face was delicately tinted, smooth as ivory. She wore a brilliant red kimono, with a black and gold obi and wood-soled sandals. The box was so heavy, I had to brace it against the podium to hold onto it.

I bowed too, and thanked them, and then waved goodbye. My interpreter took the doll from my arms and helped me down the podium steps.

The adults were waiting in an orderly line. Each one in turn bowed low, then spoke. The interpreter translated. Their faces were naked, grieving, as they told me their stories.

“My wife was pregnant with our third child. When the black rain came, she ran with the children to the sea. I went to work early that day, I didn’t say goodbye. One of my neighbors told me later how it was-they boiled in the water. The skin and flesh boiled off their bones. Nothing remained.”

“My son’s shadow was burnt onto the wall of our house. That is all that was left of him, a piece of wall; his shadow.”

“My niece is still alive, in the A-Bomb Hospital. She was a child when the bomb fell. Her body is covered in keloids. For fifteen years she has slept in a sling in that hospital room. You must come and see her.

All day, she makes paper cranes. For peace. To bring peace to the world.”

 

Tsunamis In the House of Wholeness

Earlier this week, I was chatting on Twitter with my friends Susan Piver and Jen Louden about writing. We talked about writing that liberates rather than congeals. Writing as discovery and exploration, versus writing to confirm what we already know, or think we do.

And yet, the distinctions aren’t that neatly drawn. I write to find the radiance of truth, in myself as much as in whatever I’m writing about. I write to discover wholeness.

I may have to wriggle into the house of wholeness through a half-opened window. Or climb a nearby tree, crawl out on a limb, and fall through a hole in the roof.

Writing, for me, is exploration, curiosity and adventure. And sometimes, writing is breaking and entering, in pursuit of what I truly know but have yet to discover, or rediscover.

I burrow into my body for the stories in my blood and bones. And follow my breath to the threshold of my soul’s engagement with the world. Love connects me with all beings–with realities as distant as galaxies and as close as the pupil of my eye.

Writing is a place where my inner being breathes in and out with the rhythm of my world. It’s an encounter with self and otherness, and with the ever-evolving relationship between these two.

When I first sat down to write today, I felt that familiar longing to cross the bright courtyard of everyday reality; to emerge into the more complex radiance of the house of wholeness. There, in its darkened ballroom, truth revolves like a mirror ball, offering reflected shards of light to the walls, to the ceiling, to the corners of the dance-floor. Illuminating faces, bodies, hands, feet, hair. A musical chiaroscuro.

And now a memory blinks in and out. Fragments.

December 2004. I was visiting my sister in Bombay. The day after Christmas, while we were still asleep, a tsunami roared across the Indian Ocean devastating everything in its path.

Why this story? Why now, so many years later?

No matter. This is the story that wants to be told. I follow it through hallways and up winding staircases in the house of wholeness, and each sentence I write reveals only a sliver of it. In the next sentence, a different fragment flashes into view. The mirror ball turns and turns again. Offering a glimpse of this. A glimmer of that.

Experience only becomes coherent — a story, a narrative — in hindsight, when I’m sitting safely in my chair, choosing which story to tell. All the other stories–those that crowd around, clamoring to be heard, those that hover shyly in the shadows — are repressed, set adrift, until eventually they are lost or forgotten. So many stories forgotten.

What I understand now, nearly six years after the tsunami washed away all those lives, is this: The tsunami was an event, a violent, tragic event that took place primarily over the course of several hours on Boxing Day, 2004. But my experience of it unfolded over a much longer period of time; a slow, gradual understanding that could only emerge as my heart expanded and crumpled and bloomed open in a dance that continues today.

Here are some scenes that flash in the mirror ball of memory:

I had just come out of the shower and was towel-drying my hair at my sister Parvana’s home in Bombay. My scalp felt cool and tingly in the flow of air from the juddering air-conditioner.

Parvana hurried into my room with her quick, impatient stride. Without looking at me, she blurted: “Have you heard? There was a terrible earthquake in Indonesia this morning. A tsunami drowned hundreds of towns and villages. In South India too. No-one knows how many people died. It’s on the news. I’m going to phone my friends in the Maldives to see if they’re okay.”

Turning to go, she stumbled, and grabbed the door-frame to keep from falling.

Later that evening Parvana’s friends, Tanny and Nilu, came for dinner. Tanny was then an admiral in the Indian navy. He was in charge of naval rescue operations for South India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

All evening, while the rest of us picked at our food, and talked, and worried about what was happening out there in the tsunami-ravaged countries that ringed the Indian Ocean, Tanny was on his cell phone. Organizing relief supplies. Deploying rescue ships. And fielding phone calls from frantic parents.

Cabinet ministers, diplomats, billionaire businessmen — those who knew Tanny well enough to have his cell phone number — called and demanded that the navy send out ships to collect their children and bring them home. These young men and women had been vacationing at beach resorts, which may or may not have vanished under the sea.

Over the clink of silverware on dinner plates, we heard Tanny explain, over and over again, that the navy was needed elsewhere; that the young people would be rescued by plane and helicopter; that he would call the parents back as soon as he had any news. His voice was soft and deep, coaxing, reassuring.

Hours later he dropped into his seat at the dinner table, exhausted. His dinner, congealed on its plate, remained uneaten. Wrinkled eggplant slices. Grains of rice stiff and bristling. Wilted romaine lettuce.

Later still, that night, on the TV screen, the same few images played over and over. Great swells of brown and grey sea. Bits of timber and unidentifiable flotsam bobbing on the waves. People running, crying. Frantic men and women looking for family members.

And the death toll, printed on a banner that scrolled across the bottom of the screen. 2,500. 12,000. 45,000.

I didn’t sleep that night. Or for many nights after. And by then I was too exhausted to know what day it was. But I didn’t cry; I couldn’t take in a tragedy on this scale. My heart felt numb.

The Tuesday after Boxing Day, I took my sister, Nivi, and my 90-year-old aunt out for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in South Bombay. Halfway through lunch, Nivi looked worriedly at her watch. “I have to get home by two o’clock,” she said. “I have to change for a funeral at three.” She sighed. “If it were just a one-person funeral, I could wear what I’m wearing now. But it’s a five-person funeral so I have to change into a funeral sari.”

“Yes,” my aunt said. “Nivi’s poor neighbour. His brother and sister-in-law, and one of their twin boys, and his mother and sister–they all drowned in the tsunami. They brought the bodies home from Sri Lanka this morning. The other boy is still in hospital in a coma.”

I went into the Ladies’ Room, which smelled of disinfectant. No tears, but I retched up a mouthful of bile, and washed my face. This was closer to home; but still not close enough to break through the mushy crust of snow in my heart.

On the plane home from Hong Kong to Vancouver on New Year’s eve, an entire section of the South China Morning Post was devoted to the tsunami–one page per country. The death toll had risen to 160,000. More photos and stories. Interviews with survivors.

I tried to sleep on the plane, but my mind kept watch while my heart pounded painfully in my chest. I wondered if I was having a heart attack.

At last, at last I was home. Exhausted, wired, grateful, tremulous, I hugged my son James tightly. So tightly, for so long, that he finally kissed me on the top of my head and said, “It’s okay; I’m here.”

I thought: When did he become a man?

Days later, a wild, January snowstorm hit the west coast. The wind howled and rattled the windowpanes. The power went out. And stayed out for the next fourteen hours. The house grew bitterly cold.

Sick with the flu, I huddled under my down quilt. I couldn’t feel my nose or face. My ears burned. My head felt as though it needed to split open to relieve the roaring behind my eyes.

I phoned James at his dad’s house. Just to hear his voice. To reassure myself that he was still there, still okay. He was patient with me. I hung up the phone.

Then I curled into a ball on the couch and cried. For a long time, I cried. Snot ran down my nose. My heart was a hundred shards of glass.

I cried for children and men and women who were cold and hungry, homeless and terrified. For all those parents who didn’t know where their sons and daughters were. For our fragile, fragile lives.

 

It’s now a day and a night since I wrote this. And the question still hovers by my shoulder, insisting: Why this story? Why now, nearly six years later?

I don’t know. So I take the question by the hand, and together we set off to explore the house of wholeness.

The mirror ball in the ballroom is still turning, flashing its beacon through the house.

In its light, I see: Today’s tsunami is the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I’m not there, on those beaches, in those ocean currents, choking with the fish, drowning in oil with the sea-birds. I’m not there.

But that seascape is in me.

The Gulf, the pelicans, the dying fish live in the house of wholeness too.

This time, I’ve been given the gift of geography. This time, I sit here in my living room, feeling the salty breath of Nanoose Bay on my cheek through the open window.

And my living room, Nanoose Bay, the ocean breeze on my face — these are in the house of wholeness too.

Attuning to the Deva of the Bay of Mexico, I find myself in a great meeting room, where beings from many dimensions have gathered. There are Devas of healing here, and Devas of pelicans, seagulls, fishes and oceans. The Soul of Humanity strolls through the room, offering around a platter of food. It stops to embrace a woman here, a fish-child there — to reassure the souls of those who are giving their love to heal and restore this wounded landscape, this bleeding, blackened sea.

The Sacred holds this gathering in the heart of the house of wholeness. It feels like we’re sitting in a giant lap — soft, deep, safe.

So much of my life, I have felt helpless before the tsunamis of trauma, pain and suffering in this world. Growing up in India, and being named for the first city on earth to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, I absorbed the suffering of the world into the cells of my body when I was just a baby.

My heart has been wounded and wounded again, until it’s learned the wisdom of sitting like a child in the lap of love, here in the house of wholeness.

When pain sears my heart, the fragrance of the Sacred fills my nostrils. In despair and in gratitude, my prayer remains the same: for blessing and healing for the earth, for love and wholeness for all beings everywhere.

That beautiful sea and coastline, black as a bruise. Those magnificent birds, built for air and flight, trapped by the gravity of oil on their wings. I’ve cried, and raged, and mourned their ravaging.

But each bead of blood in my heart knows wholeness too. I can no longer gather up the pain of the world and hold it inside my belly. It cannot be healed there — it can only damage that inner shoreline, bring death to that living sea. I am responsible for keeping my inner world healthy and whole. The quality of my presence — the peace or conflict in my heart — is what I bring to this gathering. How can I live outside the house of wholeness and join in the work of blessing?

It’s an exquisitely delicate relationship, this response of my heart to the need of the world. Because the moment I forget that the Sacred is in the world as well as in me, my little self sinks under the impossible weight of a million toxic oil spills.

Then I am no longer part of this gathering, a source of blessing and radiance, of healing and love. Instead, I stagger around blindly, stunned, bruised and bleeding. A casualty of violence, adding to the fear, the chaos and confusion around me.

The question that has me by the hand leads me to a quiet window seat overlooking the garden. Here in the house of wholeness, we curl up with our arms around each other, and turn our faces to the sun.

 

How about you? I’d love to hear about the different ways in which you explore your self and your relationship with the world. How do you enter the house of wholeness? Why do you write, or paint, or bake bread? What do you know?

Finger Painting

Sea foam sparkles on the waves. Sea lions
roar. Foam shivers, flies
into the wind. The tide holds its breath.
Hisssssssssssss

**********

Ganesh’s belly rests in his lap. His trunk
caresses tree, root, sky. His feet can’t be so
small, can they? To hold up such a big heart?

**********

Black grapes in a white bowl. Thick skin, sweet
wetness on the tongue.

**********

Giraffes nibble lilac clouds.
One gulp. All gone.

**********

Follow this dimpled eddy down down down. Blue-green
sea green, azure, mink. Murky mists. Sun
shines up from its sea bed. Stars shatter across the sky.

**********

From the beach below, a springy rainbow path
sends a formal invitation. Walk on water. Walk on air. Walk
through the stars. Walk…walk…walk…out
to the edge…in
to home.

**********

Yesterday, you were a tired old man. Today, you’re
three-and-a-half. Today, you rule the world.
One flick of your pigtails and…off with their heads!

**********

Roses. Spicy-musk. Hidden under the floor-boards. Exuding
rose-ness, a tang of cloves.

**********

Tomorrow, a whisper curls around every ear.
Have you heard? The tide is here!

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Come play with me? Share your finger-paintings in Comments!

Places of the Heart…

Last weekend, I learned that I’ll have to leave the house I’ve lived in for the past three years. Its owner, a lovely woman, wants it back for her own family as a vacation home.

Not today, not tomorrow, but sometime in the next few months, I will have to say goodbye to this exquisite place that has taught me so much about love and belonging.

Goodbye to this bay, whose shifting sands, impromptu rainbows, floating islands, and shot-silk waters are an unfolding story that fills me daily with delight and joy.

Goodbye to my friends, the great bald eagles who teach me about power, commitment, vision, and what it takes to stay aloft in the wildest winter storms. Their diligence as they rebuild their nest each year in the tall cedar tree at the edge of this property. The patience, skill and fearless love with which they teach their little ones to fly.

My spirit companions, the golden eagles, nest a short distance away too. They show up to celebrate each threshold crossed, each passage navigated in my life, by swooping in widening circles in front of my house-an unparalleled dance of power and support.

The non-physical beings that overlight this landscape are my friends and teachers too. They tell me that love cannot be lost…that wherever I go next, their blessings travel with me.

I’ve been grieving, these past few days. Letting hot tears flow. My relationship with this place is as deep and profound as any human relationship. And yet there are no rituals in our culture for honoring such a relationship, for mourning its passage.

So I make my own rituals. Shaped by the changing colors of the sky. By the ebb and flow of the tides. And the pattern of this landscape that lives in my heart.

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I’d love to hear about the places you love. And your own rituals for honoring and leaving these places of the heart.

Refugees: Remembering 9/11

I woke up that September morning, eight years ago today, with a stiff neck and a sore right hip from sleeping on the couch in my cousin Dinaz’s living room. My fifty-two-year-old body, unaccustomed to narrow, hard mattresses and the slope of couch cushions, ached. Dinaz’s apartment in midtown Manhattan was air conditioned and so cold that I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders even though it was still summer and in the high nineties outside. I opened the blinds and blinked against the dazzle of sun. Fourteen stories below, the street was a narrow canyon shadowed by tall buildings.

Turning away from the window, I looked down at my son James, asleep on his bed of quilts on the floor. Sunlight gilded the soft down on his cheeks, limned his eyelids, and touched the tips of his long, black lashes. At thirteen, he had the voice and body of a man, but his face was a child’s: open, naked, vulnerable; all curves and roundness.

Let him sleep, I prayed to the goddess of children; let him be happy. He had been so sad since his dad and I had separated, six weeks earlier.

His eyelids trembled. I held my breath and watched him, knowing I ought to wake him. We planned to leave early, that morning, to get in as much sightseeing as we could. We were going to take the elevator up to the observation tower at the World Trade Centre, so we could see all of New York laid out beneath us.

James and I lived in Nanaimo at that time–a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island. When my cousin called to invite us to visit her in New York, I knew we had to go. Both of us needed to find out where we belonged, in a world that had shifted on its axis that summer.

Dinaz rushed out of her bedroom, dressed for work in a gray suit, briefcase clutched in one hand. Her lovely face was ash pale, her mouth a twist of grief.

“Turn on the TV,” she said. “Turn on the TV.”

The sound of her voice woke James, who looked dazed and sat up in bed. Dinaz put an arm around his shoulder. The three of us stared in silence at the unthinkable events exploding on the screen. Dimly, I heard Dinaz’s heels click on the hardwood floor, and turned to see her disappear into her small kitchen. She called to us from there, raising her voice so we could hear her over the sound of the TV.

“Don’t go outside at all today,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. There’s lots of food in here. I’m going to the office to take care of my staff.” Most of her staff lived in the boroughs-New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens. She didn’t know how long they’d be stranded in Manhattan, and she wanted to be prepared. She packed sandwiches for them in a large brown paper bag, added a thermos of tea and packages of biscuits. “I’ll see them safely home,” she said.

What was safe any more, I wondered. Where was home?

We watched it on TV, over and over. The plane heading straight for the building. The explosion. And, unbelievably, the second plane, the roiling flames. Fire. And smoke. Fire and smoke.

And bodies falling.

“They’re jumping from the eightieth floor,” gasped the announcer. His voice cracked and blurred. They had to choose. Jump or be roasted alive.

I thought: I know something of how this feels. Teetering on the ledge, caught between two impossibilities. Until the pressure at your back makes the unthinkable inevitable. And you jump because you can no longer bear the alternative.

James kept saying: “This is real, Mum. It’s on TV but it’s for real.” His voice was tinged with awe, disbelief, a thrill of excitement.

I thought: What had been going through the minds of those people on the planes? The people who had boarded their flight that morning, thinking they had time. When did they realize their lives were suddenly complete, that they would not get to erase or redress the past, or create a future? What was left of love or meaning as the buildings hurtled towards them?

And those men and women sitting at their desks, drinking their morning coffee when death came crashing like a meteor through their windows. Those who were killed by the blast. Those who jumped from the Twin Towers to escape the flames.

That day in Manhattan, we watched history explode on the screen as the Twin Towers were destroyed, over and over, on every TV channel. I wanted to do something, anything-but police spokesmen on TV were asking people to stay out of the downtown area. The fear and uncertainty in New York that day mirrored my own feeling of having lost a layer of skin; the whole country was waking up to the fact that we were all vulnerable, that there was no immunity, no safety anywhere, no permanence, nothing predictable, nothing we could grasp or control. There was only life in all its sprawling, savage beauty; only human beings acting out of fear or love or greed, out of the desire to keep their children safe or the longing to shape their own destiny. Human beings massacring each other to avoid feeling the cold breath of their own mortality.

It was our own deaths we saw in those images of burning buildings and falling bodies. And all our posturing and attempts at self-protection could not prepare us for how or when Death would finally arrive.

James kept flicking the TV from channel to channel, hoping to find something other than the terrible newscasts of the day. But most of the channels were blank because the main TV receivers had been on top of the World Trade Centre towers and had been destroyed. Eventually, we dressed and took the elevator downstairs. The doorman, sitting disheveled and red-eyed on his stool, didn’t look at us as we walked through the revolving doors.

Outside, people lounged on the benches that lined the perimeter of the building. Eating sandwiches, drinking coffee, smoking-the usual office lunchtime crowd. The Tuesday morning garbage pickup had been cancelled, and garbage was stacked all along the curb.

On Second Avenue, people walked briskly along the sidewalks. Large sections of the road were cordoned off, and there were few cars. Uniformed policemen were stopping buses and ordering the passengers to get out. The buses slid away, empty, their doors shutting with a hiss like a released breath. Many of the passengers were elderly and looked lost and frail as they stood in the middle of the road, trying to get their bearings. A white-haired woman put her arm around a young girl in a blue jumper, and led her to the safety of the sidewalk. Someone cried. James and I walked past a Lebanese deli, a Chinese grocery store.

Across the street, Forty-fourth was cordoned off at First Avenue by an orange municipal truck parked askew across the crosswalk. Behind it was the UN Plaza, surrounded by police cars and military trucks.

The adrenalin that surged through my body then was oddly familiar. Calcutta, 1970. The city teemed with terrorists: Naxalites, who belonged to a Marxist-Leninist splinter group, many of them young boys no older than James. They slid through the crowded streets carrying homemade petrol bombs under ragged clothing. No-one knew where the next bomb would come from, or where it would land. In the bazaars and bustees, in the streets and slums of Calcutta, people huddled together and talked in whispers about the random violence that menaced the city. Who would be blown up next? Was it safe to go to the sweetmeat vendor’s, to the greengrocer’s? Earlier, two policemen had been shot with their own rifles. It was fate, people said, wagging their heads Indian-style. Karma. Then the central government declared a state of emergency, and the tanks rolled out. More people died.

So that afternoon in New York, I knew better than to stop and stare. Because I grew up in India, because I lived in Calcutta during the Naxalite terrors and witnessed the bloody birth of Bangladesh, fear was etched on my DNA. I knew the rules of survival: keep your head down, but stay alert for any sudden movements-an arm emerging from a coat pocket, a man slouching over a railing, anything that makes your stomach tighten. Don’t run; walk quickly through the crowd, try to stay in the middle, away from men in uniforms. Blend in, disappear, be invisible; above all, be invisible.

I held James by the arm, afraid of losing him in the crowd. He announced loudly: “I’m hungry. I hate New York! I want to go home.”

I tightened my grip on his arm and hissed, “Shut up. Just walk, don’t look up.”

I looked quickly around to see if anyone had heard. Police. Authorities. Men in uniform who carried guns. How could I keep him safe, my North American son, who spoke his heart out loud? He lacks my genetic alarm, my birthright of necessary fear.

He said, again, with a teenager’s petulance, “But Mum, I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”

“James, shut up! There are men here who’ll shoot you because you’re brown. And young. And male. They don’t know who you are, and they don’t care. All they’ll see is the color of your skin, your black hair and brown eyes. You can’t just . . . blurt out whatever you feel.”

“Why not?” he demanded, this child of new world privilege.

“Because they’ll have you down on the pavement with a gun pointed at your head.” (I could see this as I said it, see him lying helpless, face down.)

This he understood, my child of television land. He has seen more cop shows than I will ever see.

But I have seen tanks chewing up the streets of Calcutta. I have seen a flood of refugees inundating a city so crowded it was in danger of tipping into the sea. Ten million refugees, the newspapers said, from East Pakistan. Radio and news reports talked of families drowned in rice paddies red with the blood of wives and husbands and children. Homes torched. Homes made of mud and straw and clay, coated with cow dung, thatched with dried fronds of coconut palms. Homes that burn. So easily destroyed.

I remember going to Howrah station to catch a train to Delhi and seeing thousands of refugees packed together on the platforms: old men in dirty dhotis, women still trying to keep their faces covered with the ends of ragged saris, children with terrified eyes, all huddled together on the cold, filthy platforms because their world had been destroyed by men with tanks and guns and flaming torches. They had nothing left, nowhere else to go.

So much of the world lives with the everyday reality of war. Bangladesh. Iraq. Tibet. Rwanda. Bosnia. Somalia. Afghanistan. What made us think we could remain immune?

Still holding onto James’s arm, I walked quickly up Second Avenue. All the stores were closed. Only a few small delis and corner grocers remained open, manned by brown-skinned men accustomed to doing business in the midst of chaos.

People stood on the sidewalk and stared at the sky, which was brown and oily with smoke; an acrid reminder, if we needed one, of the Towers still smoldering only a few blocks away.

We turned west on Fifty-Seventh Street, then south, down Third Avenue. Third is a one-way street and that afternoon it was jammed with traffic heading uptown. Cars, trucks, SUV’s, bikes, a few taxicabs. No buses. Exhaust fumes mingled with the smoke, searing my throat. Traffic was gridlocked as far south as I could see.

No-one honked. In all that traffic, not one honking horn. Terrorism silences everyday sounds, in New York as in Calcutta.

The sidewalk was a river of people flowing uptown. Some talked on cell-phones as they walked. Others stood, looking stunned, marooned, listening to the radio at news kiosks. Couples walked hand in hand, refugees in tailored suits.

James and I pushed against the press of bodies; we were the only ones walking towards downtown. Refugees of another kind, heading in the wrong direction, against the flow; the others all fleeing away from the disaster area. That’s what they were calling it on the portable TV at the corner news kiosk: The Disaster Area. The announcers looked as ravaged as everyone else.

There were armed police clustered at each of the four corners of every single street we crossed. And MPs, marines, National Guard, FBI, talking into radios and cell-phones, wearing side arms with unbuttoned holsters. Many of them carried bigger guns: rifles, machine guns, automatic weapons.

The Stars and Stripes fluttered everywhere, symbol of solidarity and patriotism, Americans closing ranks against an uncommon enemy. Flags draped over the sides of office buildings, flying from the antennae of police cars, even one full-sized flag drooping over the back tire of a shiny black Harley which idled in the stalled traffic.

Around Fiftieth Street, a sporting goods store was open for business; people crowded through its front doors. Curious, James and I followed. Inside, a tangle of men and women in business suits trudged up the stairs. James and I climbed up behind them, wondering what we would find.

The sign on the second floor read: Athletic Shoes. The room was cavernous, a warehouse packed with shoppers grabbing shoes off tables and shelves which were by then almost bare. People hurried past us, cradling three, four, five boxes of shoes in their arms.

I thought: there must be a fire sale. I wondered why anyone would have a sale on that disastrous day, but found myself looking around for shoes for James. The only shoes left were either too small or too big, or so geeky that James gagged and rolled his eyes when I held them up. Eventually, we gave up and headed back downstairs. On the main floor we browsed through racks of T-shirts and fleece pants, Nike-wear and sleek black Danskin leggings. There was something surreal about shopping while thousands of people lay dead or dying only a few miles away. But it was mindlessly comforting too, like chewing gum, or watching TV; except that watching TV had suddenly become an activity fraught with anxiety. So we shopped. James picked out a pair of black shorts. We stood in line along the cashier’s counter.

The woman beside me leaned forward at an odd angle, as though she were struggling to stay upright in a high wind. She seemed to be in her mid-thirties, with chin-length ash-grey hair in a blunt, swingy cut. Her face was carefully made up, marble-like in its stillness; her blood-red fingernails matched her lipstick. Still, there was something slightly off-kilter about her. She wore a short pinstriped skirt with a crisp matching jacket, but the hem of the jacket had come undone, and her gray sheer stockings were torn at the shins. I looked down at her feet, which were clad in brand-new Nike runners. Her left hand dangled at her side, holding a pair of black patent-leather pumps, covered in ash. Her hand trembled. She looked fragile as a moth.

I asked, “Are you all right?”

She looked blankly at me then, her face very still before she spoke.

“I just came from there,” she said, slowly, her voice rusty and hoarse, as though she had forgotten how to speak. “I walked the whole way.”

She smelled of smoke, and diesel fumes, and fear. A sharp smell that crept under my skin and brought the blood whooshing into my ears.

“I want to go home,” she said, her voice tremulous, on the verge of tears.

I stroked her back. What could I offer her but the touch of my hand?

Her body quivered as she mumbled, “I’ve got forty more blocks to walk. I just want to get home.”

I wanted to put my arms around her, cradle her close, comfort her as though she were James; as though I could keep her safe. I wanted to say: come home with us, we’ll take care of you; we live just around the corner. But this was New York, and Dinaz’s apartment was not my home.

I stroked her back gently and drew James closer. “Can I help?” I asked. “Would you like us to walk with you?”

She shook her head. Ash flew off her hair onto the back of my hand.

I felt her shock and exhaustion in my body. “I’ll pray that you get safely home,” I told her, love and grief and the yearning to keep her safe in my voice, in my hands.

I realized then that I’d known all along where I belong. I belong wherever love and kinship fill my heart. I had thought that being home meant being rooted like a tree in geography and genetics. But instead my roots are the roots of the lotus, floating wherever the currents of life take me. I can offer love and friendship wherever I am. And receive, in turn, the gifts that life brings in such abundance, in the midst of terror, destruction and the fire’s heat.

The woman with the ash-covered shoes turned and walked away, giving us a half wave as she left. We paid for James’s shorts and walked out of the air-conditioned store into the sweltering heat of the afternoon. Hungry and exhausted, we threaded our way through the crowd, back to the cool refuge of Dinaz’s apartment. I sank into the couch and put my feet up on the coffee table, while James rummaged in the refrigerator and emerged with a slice of pizza, which he folded in half and stuffed into his mouth. We leaned against each other on the couch, and waited for Dinaz to come home.

The Magical Monsoon: a love story in a minor key

In honor of my 60th birthday later this month, I share this story, which I wrote a long time ago, celebrating the spirit of love, community, and the wonder that lives in our hearts. Enjoy!

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It was a hot, sun-bleached morning in late August, the month of monsoons and sultry rain. But the rains had been delayed by more than two months. The newspapers in the big cities of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, were full of stories about people in villages in the hinterland dying of sunstroke, dying of thirst and starvation. Cattle were dying too. Their fly-blown carcasses could be seen from the windows of trains that chugged by fields dry as bone and baked by a merciless sun.

Mud huts lacked their usual covering of cow-dung patties. No rain meant no fodder, which meant no cows; hence no patties, no fuel to cook with. But then there was no food to be cooked anyway, so it didn’t much matter. Wells were dry. The earth itself was cracked and parched. Trees withered, their sap shrivelled in the merciless heat. The government of India proclaimed a state of national emergency. It issued communiques on All India Radio exhorting people to tighten their belts and stand in solidarity with the nation’s farmers, whose farms were disappearing into dust before their despairing eyes.

An army of astrologers, priests and pundits descended on the capital city of Delhi, intent on making their fortunes by predicting rain in three days, three weeks, or three years. During this time, they said, famine would stalk the land. The gods would have to be propitiated daily, even hourly, by generous offerings of ghee and gold, if the coming of Kaliyuga – the Dark Age – were to be averted by the prayers of these holy men.

In the tiny village of Gopinagar, which stood fragile and exposed in the middle of a broad plain near the bay of Cambay, the village elders had called a meeting to decide what to do. Nine year old Shantha, cradled half-asleep in her father’s lap, listened to the arguments swirling around her late into the night. The men’s voices, cracked and bleak, hung in the dusty air under the withered tamarind tree which, in better days, had sheltered many village meetings in its green shade. Now it served only as a reminder of the grim fate that awaited them all.

The crops were gone. The cattle were gone. The well was a dusty hole in the ground. The villagers had eaten the seed-grain that was to have been planted after the monsoons. The children were getting sick. Their eyes were yellow, their faces grey. Their bellies had grown round and protruberant. Their hair turned rusty red from starvation.

There was talk of sending a letter to the local Member of Parliament, begging for relief, but to do that someone would have to walk to the nearest town, some eight miles away, where there was a scribe who would write down their words for a small fee. For a further sum, he would take their plea to the post office and ensure that it went out in the mail. But they had no money to pay the scribe, to pay the post-office; and they were all too weak from hunger to walk the required distance. In better times, they would have ridden their bullock-carts into the weekly market in Midnapore, but the bullocks, too, were dead now. The men’s voices rose and fell as Shantha drifted off into a tugging dream.

In her dream it was early morning: that brief half-hour when the dew was still on the ground. The air was cool, the sky pearly with the first rays of the sun. Birds chattered in the paddy fields and preened themselves in the muddy waters of the village pond. She dreamed that, at this hour, before the sun had become fierce and burning, a great bird flew overhead. It wheeled like a hawk – a hawk whose wings spanned the whole sky – directly over her parents’ hut. Its wings were the colours of a peacock’s plumes, rich and glossy. But instead of an “eye” at the precise center of each feather, there was a round, gold coin which glistened and winked in the morning light.

This magical bird uttered no sound. But the great sweep of its wings as it circled the sky made a powerful whoosh-whoosh-whooshing that brought other members of the village to the threshold of their huts to gaze at it, open-mouthed with wonder.

As Shantha dreamed on, the bird circled lower and lower, until the shadow of its wings darkened the interior of her parents’ hut.

All around Shantha, people were screaming and crying, prostrating themselves on the ground below this mystic bird, this messenger from the gods. They believed that such a messenger could only be the bringer of bad news. Anything out of the ordinary was, in their experience, to be feared rather than welcomed.

In her dream, Shantha was the only member of the village still standing upright, face turned to the sky, following, with her eyes, the spiralling course of this Garuda, this mythical, magical beast. As she watched, it slowed its course until it was completely still, hovering in mid-air a few yards above her head. Then, with a final rush of its wings it swooped down until its great, hooked beak was directly beside her left ear. She felt the touch of it, cold and hard against her cheek, but she was not afraid.

Even as her mother and brothers shrieked and called on their household gods to come to her aid, Shantha felt a great peace. She felt herself enfolded in a love as supple and infinite as the sky. And she knew, with the certainty of one who is touched by the gods, that this was no ill-fated omen but the great god Vishnu himself: Preserver of that mortal world which was breathed into being by Brahma and which would be destroyed, in its last days, by mighty Shiva, the third face of their holy Trinity.

At that moment, Shantha turned her head and looked into the bird’s all-seeing eye. For a long moment, they gazed upon each other, and in that moment much was transmitted, darshan offered and received. And even though Shantha, in her dream, did not know the precise meaning of the knowledge she had thus gained, she knew that the course of her life had been altered forever.

The bird rose vertically, without any visible movement of its wings, and, in another moment, it was gone. Shantha slept on, waking only briefly when her father carried her in his arms back into their hut. The meeting had been adjourned without any decision being made, and the people of the village went to their beds that night wondering how many more nights they had left to live.

The next morning, Shantha woke early; so early that even her mother was still asleep. She felt herself transformed, buoyant as a bird, with a nameless joy which started in the region of her heart and spread its fingers into her belly and out through all her limbs. Into her mind there flashed an image. Before she had time to consider it, she ran out of the hut.

Her skinny legs pumping as fast as they could, she made her way down to the wadi, the dry creek bed beside which their village was nestled. Avoiding the thorn bushes which nipped at her bare feet, she ran down into the middle of the wadi and there she began to dance. She twirled her slender body around and around. She stamped her feet, raising clouds of red dust around her. She wove intricate patterns in the dusty air with her arms and swiveled her head from side to side. Her long black hair, disheveled from sleep, swung to and fro to the beat of an invisible drum. Her mouth was stretched wide in a joyous smile.

A moment later, she began to sing. Shantha sang a song no one had ever heard before, in a language she did not know. Its melody was simple and haunting, with a rising lilt and a pronounced beat. It had the same celebratory joy as the dance she was still dancing, as the dance that was dancing her. She sang on and on as the sun rose in the sky, untiring and energetic as though she had just eaten a bellyful of dal and rice.

Some of the villagers, waking to this joyous sound, dragged themselves down listlessly to the edge of the wadi. They squatted there in small groups, wagging their heads from side to side as they discussed Shantha’s peculiar behaviour. The village headman said she was surely possessed by a demon. He was soon surrounded by a group of villagers who agreed with this diagnosis.

One man suggested a fool-proof way to exorcise the Rakshasa who had possessed the child’s body. Tie her to a tree and burn tulsi leaves on her belly, he said. No-no, protested another. Draw a circle of protection around her with chunam. Then read the Bhagavad Gita aloud until the demon, unable to bear the power of the holy words, slinks away. The village midwife suggested rubbing Shantha’s head with mustard oil, then placing two lemons and a green chilli on her chest to drive away the evil spirit.

This last suggestion was met with derision. Where would they find a lemon, or green chillies? Waah-waah! Such stupidity! An elderly woman maintained the child was merely delirious from thirst and starvation. This hypothesis met with the approval of several other women, who murmured agreement. The village headman sent two of his children to summon Shantha’s parents.

Weak from hunger and thirst, Shantha’s parents shuffled slowly towards the wadi from their hut. Walking into the circle of their neighbours, they were greeted with much shaking of heads and sober commiseration.

Shantha’s father ventured down into the middle of the wadi. He tried to put his arms around his daughter, pleading with her to return to their hut and lie down in its shade. Her eyes remained closed. The expression on her face was ecstatic. The muscles in her throat rippled as she sang. She danced with her head flung far back, her hair flying in the dusty air. Her father commanded her, in his cracked, hoarse voice, to stop, to return to their hut. Shantha remained oblivious. She danced and sang with a single-minded grace and purity of purpose that excluded everything else.

Meanwhile, Shantha’s mother, surrounded by the women of the village, maintained an air of resolute unconcern. The women looked at her out of the corners of their eyes. She ignored their whispered warnings, their damp palms which patted her sweating back and arms. Cradling her elbows in her hands, she kept her eyes fixed on her daughter. A small smile came and went on her sun-chapped lips.

Eventually, the women, rebuffed, left her alone. They gossiped and speculated about her alarming lack of concern for her child. One of them called on the gods and rolled her eyes skyward in automatic tribute. A second later, she gasped. Trembling with excitement, unable to speak, she pointed to the sky.

Dark clouds were racing in from the west, obliterating the sun. The women around her cried out, pointed, clapped their hands. Excitement spread like lightning. Within moments, the entire village had forgotten about Shantha and her astonishing behaviour. They were laughing and weeping. They praised Vishnu and embraced each other in a transport of joy. The monsoons had finally arrived.

The first drops of rain were met with jubilant cries and prayers of thanksgiving. The villagers opened their parched mouths and let the blessed rains fall directly down their eager throats. The drops turned into a deluge, and people were squatting on the ground in the rain, allowing its sweet coolness to soak through their clothes and drench them to the skin.

Nobody noticed that Shantha was no longer singing or dancing; that, indeed, Shantha was nowhere to be found among the celebrating throng. Only her mother saw Shantha open her arms joyously towards the sky as though welcoming a friend, or a god. She watched Shantha being pulled upward by an invisible force which bathed her entire body in a blue-green glow before she disappeared, leaving no trace of her passage through the glistening rain.

For many years after, the villagers speculated about what had happened to nine-year-old Shantha in that year of the terrible famine and the magical monsoon. None of them came near the truth, however, because Shantha’s mother never spoke to anyone in the village of what she had seen that day. Only in her old age did she break her silence, when her younger sister, Lalita, came to visit her from Midnapore. Late one summer’s night, as she sat combing Lalita’s hair, she whispered to her the true story of Shantha’s disappearance.

For the rest of her life, Shantha’s mother placed daily offerings of fruit and flowers at a small shrine she had made near the edge of the wadi, between the roots of a mango tree. The shrine was simple: a flat rock with a natural hollow into which she poured oil and floated a wick. Lighting a lamp for her daughter who had flown away into the sky so that her village and her people might live and prosper.

……………………………………………………

(How about you? If you have a story about wonders and miracles that have unfolded in your life, or around you, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s share our miraculous stories. From the smallest fingertip to the vastest star, they remind us of who we really are.)

Car Wash Rainbow

Every once in a while I run into some cool technological marvel that brings the wide-eyed child in me onto her feet, exploding with excitement. I grew up in a pretty low-tech culture-India in the 50′s and 60′s-so it doesn’t take a lot to enthrall me.

This week, it was my first drive through a Touchless Car Wash. My little blue Toyota Matrix was covered in summer dust so thick that squirting it with wiper fluid and turning on the windshield wipers merely smeared the glass with brown sludge. So yesterday I went to my local gas station, paid $9.95 for a wash ticket, and drove around the back of the parking lot to the car wash.

After I’d punched in my ticket number at a sunshine-yellow gatekeeper gizmo who looked a bit like Yoda, but without a face, a green light came on, directing me to drive slowly forward into the car wash’s concrete cave. Inside, jets of water sprayed upward, whispering of underground springs, cleaning the mud off my car’s under-carriage.

Virgo heaven!

While I was still grinning with delight, another green light beckoned me deeper into the cave. Not sure what creatures inhabited its recesses, I inched forward.

Then, a great magic wand wafted over my car, releasing streams of water that sluiced down the sides like monsoon rain. Moments later, a celestial starburst of pink-and-blue-and-yellow foam spurted from on high, covering the windows in softly melting sparkles of color.

I sat there enthralled, wrapped softly inside a foaming rainbow. My inner five-year-old got so excited, I honked the horn, which echoed and re-echoed eerily in the rainbow cave.

By the time the dryers had whooshed the last droplets of water off the windshield, I’d had enough excitement for the day. I drove home, crawled into bed and had a nap.

And dreamed of whooshing rain and foaming rainbows.

How about you? What wonders danced into your life this week?

Remembering Hiroshima

On August 6th, 1945–64 years ago today–the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. An estimated 140,000 people died as a result of that blast. Today, the city of Hiroshima leads the movement for world peace. I am proud to be named for this city, which has transformed a legacy of unimaginable suffering into the ongoing work of peace-making. This is my tribute to Hiroshima; to those who died in the world’s first nuclear holocaust, and to those who live there today.

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I was born in Bombay in 1949; four years after the world’s first atomic bomb devastated Hiroshima. My mother was getting dressed to go for a walk with her sister, my aunt Amy. Before she had finished putting on her sari, I arrived.

My aunt, who was a physician, delivered me into the world on my parents’ four-poster bed. Afterward, she said with a laugh: “This baby came out like an atom bomb. Let’s name her Hiroshima!”

She was joking, of course. My aunt was a happy, sunny, woman who loved to laugh. My father had a sense of humor too-he named me Hiroshima. Years later, when I asked him why, he said: “So what happened there will be remembered.”

For most of my childhood, my name was a boulder in my small belly. Nobody knew how to pronounce it. And no-one else had a name that carried such a weight of death and destruction.

More than eighty thousand people died in Hiroshima that morning of August 6th, 1945. Many thousands more died of radiation poisoning in the years that followed.

I carried this knowledge inside me like a secret.

When I was ten years old, I won an international essay contest co-sponsored by UNESCO, the Japan-India Friendship Foundation, and the Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun. In my essay, I wrote about my name-for the first time, I wrote about what it meant to me.

That October, accompanied by an escort, I flew to Tokyo for a month-long tour of Japan, as the UN’s child ambassador.

We spent the first two weeks in Tokyo, and made brief visits to Nikko, Osaka, and Kyoto. Because this was an “official” trip, there were banquets and television cameras, media interviews, ribbon cuttings and visits to schools every day.

And there were many awkward, tender, painful moments.

Everywhere we went, people heard my name and broke down in tears. Most people we met had lost someone they loved in the holocaust that was Hiroshima.

In the third week of our stay, we finally flew to Hiroshima. As the plane began its descent, I peered through the small window, expecting to see a moonscape, bleak and sere. Shockingly, I saw a city like any other-as modern and faceless as Tokyo.

The skyline bristled with tall, boxy buildings. The streets were laid out in a neat grid and teemed with traffic. The only intimation that this was a landscape destroyed by the world’s first atomic bomb fifteen years earlier was a tangle of blackened steel girders which, from the air, looked like a giant sculptured rose.

This was ground zero-the exact spot above which the atom bomb had exploded.

Everything else seemed to have been cleaned up and rebuilt so completely, it was hard to believe there had ever been a nuclear conflagration here.

We landed at a modern airport and were driven through busy streets to a beautiful, Japanese-style hotel.

A hundred thousand people died here, I reminded myself, as we walked through the elegant lobby. But the face of Hiroshima I saw that morning was the face of a porcelain doll, smooth and flawless.

Later that day, we were taken to visit the A-bomb hospital. There, I met a young girl who looked about my age. Our interpreter told me she was much older. Her body, covered in purplish-red keloids, had stayed as small as she’d been in 1945, when the radiation seared her and left her with the cancerous growths that made it impossible for her to lie in a bed. She slept, ate and lived in a woven hammock in her hospital room.

And she made paper cranes, for peace.

The cranes hung from the ceiling of her room, beautiful birds in rainbow colors, poised at the brink of flight.

I no longer remember that girl’s name, but I remember her eyes, their bright darkness. I remember her hands, small and gnarled, which created such beauty, the illusion of space and air and freedom.

When we returned to our hotel that afternoon, I went straight to bed. And slept, dreamlessly, until my escort woke me hours later for dinner with the mayor.

On our last day in Hiroshima, we were driven out to the Peace Memorial Cenotaph, where I was to give a speech to several hundred school children.

The memorial is a graceful concrete arch. It shelters a black stone cenotaph on which are inscribed the names of those who died in the bombing. On the face of the cenotaph is an inscription in Japanese. Our interpreter translated: “Let all the souls here rest in peace. We shall repeat this evil no more.”

A little while later, he led me up a flight of small wooden stairs to a podium. A microphone was lowered in front of me. Solemn, moon-faced Japanese kids stood in tidy rows, their dark eyes fixed on mine.

I said moshi-moshi, and the children bowed and smiled-beautiful gap-toothed smiles. Shining eyes. Shining black hair. There was clapping.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known what I would say. But as I looked at those bright faces, a crane opened its wings in my heart.

I spoke of what it meant to me to be in the place that was my namesake. How I had imagined it for so many years, growing up thousands of miles away in Bombay. How, in my dreams, I had heard people dying. People screaming and begging for mercy, for water. For an end to their pain.

Until I came to Hiroshima, I hadn’t understood those childhood dreams. I’d woken up many nights with my heart pounding, feeling a desperate need to help somehow. Not knowing who those people were.

Now, here they were–the very people who had survived those nightmares. My heart was full. These were the people who had lost everything they loved. Who had forged a monument to peace in the crucible of the fire.

The Japanese translator faltered, a few times, as I spoke. His translation seemed to get briefer, his voice became a slender thread that stretched out behind mine, and then broke. I turned to him, shaken out of my trance. Tears glimmered on his cheeks.

My own face was wet too.

There was a long silence.

Then the adults whispered to the kids. The children sang Sakura in clear, high voices. The Cherry Blossom Song.

Two solemn-faced kindergarteners walked up the steps to the podium with their teacher. All three of them bowed, and presented me with an exquisite Japanese doll in a glass-fronted wooden box. The doll’s porcelain face was delicately tinted, smooth as ivory. She wore a brilliant red kimono, with a black and gold obi and wood-soled sandals. The box was so heavy, I had to brace it against the podium to hold onto it.

I bowed too, and thanked them, and then waved goodbye. My interpreter took the doll from my arms and helped me down the podium steps.

The adults were waiting in an orderly line. Each one in turn bowed low, then spoke. The interpreter translated. Their faces were naked, grieving, as they told me their stories.

“My wife was pregnant with our third child. When the black rain came, she ran with the children to the sea. I went to work early that day, I didn’t say goodbye. One of my neighbors told me later how it was–they boiled in the water. The skin and flesh boiled off their bones. Nothing remained.”

“My son’s shadow was burnt onto the wall of our house. That is all that was left of him, a piece of wall; his shadow.”

“My niece is still alive, in the A-Bomb Hospital. She was a child when the bomb fell. Her body is covered in keloids. For fifteen years she has slept in a sling in that hospital room. You must come and see her.

All day, she makes paper cranes. For peace. To bring peace to the world.”

  • You are a sovereign being,
    a fractal of the Sacred,
    a fractal of Wholeness.
  • The flow of your life.
    The soul of your business.
  • Grow your business.
    Grow yourself.
  • Expand your life. Evolve your business.
  • The art of alignment. The miracle of action.
  • Trust in the power of your perfect unfolding.
  • Permission to grow, to flow, to know.
  • You learn about freedom by experiencing what it feels like to be bound.
  • Beyond your beliefs, beyond your drama — the truth of your life.
  • Success is becoming the person who can ask for hugs and holding when your own strength has deserted you.
  • Embrace the mystery at the heart of creation.
  • Your soul sends out tendrils of light and fragrance into the world.
  • You are the gift — and the giver.
    You are the Love, and the lover.
  • At the heart of all things — even limiting beliefs and painful programming — is wholeness.
  • Surrender is an act of will. It is aligning your will with the will of the Sacred.
  • You learn about sovereignty through the experience of being dethroned.
  • Love transforms.
  • Your soul's purpose is to participate in wholeness, to express wholeness.
  • True Desire is a messenger of your soul.
    It leads directly to your soul’s purposes.
  • Unfold the miracle of your life and business.
  • Business = Love in action.
  • Everything you need is already within you, waiting to unfold and express itself.
  • Your inner world shapes your outer world.
    Success is an inside job.
  • You are the story, and the story-maker.
    Your life is yours to shape.