For much of my life, I’ve been in a profoundly playful, intimate, sometimes exasperating, richly rewarding relationship with writing. I love words, I love the immersive alchemy of writing, and I seek to bring to life stories that liberate rather than congeal. Writing, to me, is discovery and exploration. I am not writing to confirm what I already know, or think I 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.
However, 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, all these 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, mum; 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.
A day and a night later, the question still hovers by my shoulder, insisting: Why this story? Why now, all these 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 world burning, because we have set fire to our only home. It’s seabirds choking on oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, in the North Sea, in once-pristine Alaskan waters. 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 ocean, the whales starving for lack of food in waters rendered too acid to support that which nourishes and feeds them and their babies, the pelicans, the dying fish — they all live in the house of wholeness too.
This time, I’ve been given the gift of geography. This time, I sit here in my study, feeling the salty breath of the Georgia Strait on my cheek through the open window.
And my study, the Strait, the ocean breeze on my face — these are in the house of wholeness too.
Attuning to the Deva of the oceans, 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 the elements. The Deva 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.