Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Perfect Flavor

Honoring prasadam in the Vaishnava fashion is the culmination of culture and service. I learned this art when I was in the Mayapur Academy, and so when I helped direct The Radha Krishna Camp for Girls in Brazil, this system was implemented. Everyone sits in rows and servers come to each person with each dish, silently and lovingly offering prasadam. Then when everyone is completely satisfied, the director gets to serve the servers.

On our third day, I was all set to serve the servers after lunch, but several of the girls who had been serving lunch kept saying no, no, Bhakti lata sit down, sit down! I insisted that no, this is a privilege, this is my service to serve the servers.

But they were so insistent. So I picked one girl, Annapurna, to serve everyone. Others also wanted to serve, but I insisted that only Annapurna would serve. Oh boy, here we go. So I sat down with the other servers.

Annapurna served nicely. She actually surprised me at one point – several minutes in she handed me a folded napkin. “What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s to wipe your mouth,” she replied. I was shocked. What? I had never taught her that. I laughed to find this competitive urge rise up in my heart. I needed to serve better.

Annapurna served well, and nevertheless I realized that she was simply not ready to serve the servers. None of the girls were ready, they simply needed more training, more experience.

When all the girls had finished, I served Annapurna. A part of me had this competitive urge rise up in me to serve the best! I also felt that it was my duty to be an example of how to serve properly and respectfully and like salt. This was beautiful for my own growth as a servant. It was hilarious, I kept laughing to myself, because I kept thinking of that folded napkin that Annapurna had given me. So I brought Annapurna ice cubes for her water! She accepted.

By the end of this whole experience I had an idea – I gathered the other servers and we had a mini-meeting. We were all going to discuss Annapurna’s service.

“If Annapurna is salt, then what is one and what is ten on a scale from 1-10?” I asked once we were all gathered in our little meeting.

“10 is best, 1 is not good?” one girl ventured.

“No… If Annapurna is salt…”

“Ah! 10 is too much salt, 1 is too little,” one girl exclaimed.

“Exactly. What is five?”

“Perfect, right in the middle.”

“Yes. So we’re each going to give feedback to Annapurna. First we’ll rate her service on a scale from 1-10, where she was at on the salt scale. Then we’ll give feedback in the form of a sandwich – positive, constructive, positive. Clear?”

The process was powerful. Girls gave feedback to Annapurna that she had been a little too salty, saying constantly if we wanted anything, constantly bringing more and more dishes. Girls appreciated that she had been attentive and patient. I gave feedback that Annapurna had been more like 3.5 – not enough salt. I had constantly been asking for another dish, or salt, etc. I also mentioned my surprise and how she had given me the napkin and how I felt this competitive spirit in me to serve even better – I’m going to serve you ice cubes, so take that! We all laughed and laughed.

Then I asked Annapurna, “So, if you were to rate my service on a scale from 1-10, what would I be? What is your feedback for me?”

Annapurna gave me a 5, and I encouraged her to please be as honest as possible. I wanted to grow in my service. She said that she did appreciate the ice for her water, that I had been attentive. When I prodded for constructive feedback, she fell quiet and then at last she said, “You were so serious,”


“Yes. Maybe you could smile more,”

I laughed and nodded, taking this in deeply. “Thank you,” I said. I folded my palms to her and thanked her for her feedback and that I would carefully consider what she had said.

“Next time I will fold your napkin into an origami bird,” Annapurna said with a grin. We all laughed. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Lower the Mask

- Shel Silverstein

I used to lose my voice a lot. I would lose it especially when I wanted to express myself the most. I have been on nine traveling youth bus tours and on eight of those tours inevitably I would lose my voice. At times my throat hurt to even hold a conversation, I had to whisper. Something I loved to do - participate in and also be asked to lead kirtan - quickly became out of the question.

Today I have been meditating on a quality that I have been meditating on for almost ten years: vulnerability. Vulnerability means being stronger than I ever thought humanly possible. Vulnerability means opening the heart - again, and again, and again - because without living a vulnerable life I am living a shell of a life.

Vulnerability means honesty. It means sharing the heart with clarity, for all of its messy and beautiful glory.

Vulnerability means owning my own messy, beautiful glory. No one else is responsible for the state of my heart.

Vulnerability means opening up the heart, knowing it could be smashed. Or worse, it could be ignored.

Vulnerability is the only way to live because it means getting in touch with the truest part of my soul and living that. It's easy to hide behind a mask of "fineness" because if people criticize or hurt the mask, hey, it's just the mask.

But if people hurt or criticize me - with no mask - then that's, well, ME.

Living life without a mask is damn scary.

And it is the only way to be seen for the real me. No other way of living will satisfy the spirit. How satisfying could it be to be loved for my mask, no matter how beautiful that mask is? Some movie stars go through this quite literally - plastic surgery.

I don't have enough money for plastic surgery or expensive wardrobes or fancy cars. So I put up my own plastic surgery of shutting down and an ingenuine smile. The cost is not money. The cost is living a life half-lived.

When I open my heart to live from a vulnerable place, a truly deep place, then love goes deep into my heart. To be hated and loved for who I am is infinitely more satisfying than to be hated and loved for who I charade to be.

I have lost my voice many times, although less and less over the years. Nevertheless, the journey is everyday, the process of lowering the mask and letting myself speak from the heart. Sing from the heart.

This life ain't no masquerade ball. Lower the masks, lower the masks! and let our eyes open and our voices fly free.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Day 11: Mysterious Wish

(To know more about this Duet, click here. We have switched and now I am writing first, Rukmini doing art in response. You can check out more of Rukmini's work here. ) 

Art & Words Duet: Day 11 
The Return 
Part Three - Mysterious Wish 
(note: this piece is fiction)

One morning my mom shook me awake, whispering, "Honey, it's time. Your father."

Unquestioningly, with bleary eyes, I jumped out of bed and followed my mother down the hall to my father's room. There was spiritual chanting of God's names, called kirtan, going on in my dad's room. The past several days this kirtan had been going on twenty-four hours a day, non-stop. When I entered the dimly lit room, my father's bed was surrounded by several soft and somber faces. Suddenly, I was struck by how beautiful my father was. 

So beautiful. 

My father was lit by lamps that cast pools of soft bronze light.  He wore a flower garland that encircled his entire body. He was emaciated. His bones were protruding from his elbows and legs, I seemed to see his thigh bones through his thin cotton cloth. His face had become all angles, his eyes sunken into his head. His skin had lost its luster.  

My father's body was deteriorating and yet his beauty was growing. So many people, from Bengali villagers to travel-monks, had come by in steady streams to see him, to offer their respects, to reminisce, to offer appreciation. Some gave him gentle massages, some sang for him, some prepared medicine or oat water. Some would read to him for hours on end from scripture. My father would receive the presence of each person with folded palms and with a smile that completely disarmed me. In all my life I had never seen my father smile in such a way. He was beautiful. He seemed to evoke deep, profound love of people he had never even met before. 

Who was this man?  

For the past couple weeks I had been quiet and kept my distance, and my father seemed to be receiving other people more than my mom or me. We mainly helped the nurses with their services. We seemed to understand that dad was reconnecting with a whole other life, a whole other worldwide community that he needed to find closure with in his final days.  

That fateful morning, mom and I entered my father's room and immediately his gaze turned to both of us. He smiled that beautiful smile, and suddenly my chest filled with heat and tears stung my eyes. 

Stay strong, I reminded myself. 

Mom and I approached his bed and he looked at us, his eyes luminous. He looked at my mother and murmured so softly we had to lean in to hear him over the music, "I love you." She began to weep and weep and he just looked at her. Then he turned to me and said with deep conviction, "I love you."

"Dad, I love you," I said, the unabashed tears flowing down my face. I wanted to ask him so many questions. I wanted to go for a walk in the park, like we used to do almost every day, even in the snow, even in the rain. I wanted to hug him. I wanted him to stay.   

He looked at me lucidly, thoughtfully. Then he said, "Eliza,"

My stomach dropped. His tone of voice was so grave. I took a breath and leaned in further.

"Promise me one day you will lead kirtan."

Kirtan? Lead kirtan? What was going on right now, this singing with those instruments? I don't sing. I don't even know what kirtan really is. I can barely follow the words. Lead? Lead kirtan? Just one kirtan? Or all the time? This all whirled through my head, the thoughts jumbling and bumping into each other. 

"Promise me."

There could be only one response. I nodded. 

My dad smiled and moved his hand towards mine, and I took his frail hand. I would hold his hand until he left this world.  

Dawn filtered into our room, the birds began to sing, and more and more people filled the space. The kirtan continued nonstop. Confusion and fear whirred through me, and I found myself listening to the kirtan, wondering why, why, why would my father give this to me as his dying wish. 

At one point, the music rose, the voices rose in a tumultuous sound. My father's eyes were closed, his breath shallow and irregular. His lips were faintly moving to the holy name being sung, and then, he breathed one last time, a big sigh. 

Tears were pouring down almost every face, even the wise swamis. Where my father had once been,  giant, empty chasm ripped open wide in my heart. But then when the kirtan rose in volume, I had a curious experience. That hole filled with the holy name being sung, like warm liquid being poured into a vessel. I felt safe, whole, protected, loved. I was absolutely astonished with the realization that my father not only wanted me to experience this, but to give this to others. Later on, this feeling would fade away and that raw emptiness returned. But in those moments I understood. I understood.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Day 10: Setting Sun

(To know more about this Duet, click here. We have switched and now I am writing first, Rukmini doing art in response.) 

Art & Words Duet: Day 10 
The Return 
Part Two - Setting Sun
(Note: this piece is fiction)

India was a trip. Literally and figuratively. Thirty-seven hours of travel over land, air, and the craziest backroads I could have ever imagined. By the time we reached our room in the village of Mayapur, I felt like I had just been in a washing machine and roller coaster combined. For 37 hours. And India itself, with its phantasmagoria of colors, sounds, and scents, seemed to leave me dizzy.

Then there was my dad. He needed to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. Strange. Every moment sitting in a taxi, plane, and rickshaw seat, even running to catch a connecting flight, my mind was on my father. I didn't know that kind of absorption was possible. I had never seen him look so weak. My mind kept replaying like a broken record back to that moment in the apartment when my dad told me, "We need to go, honey."

Go? Go where? To this strange country? For God's sake why?

Our first morning in India, two guests came to see my father. One was from China and spoke broken English - his face was wizened and his eyes sharp. The other was from Los Angeles, an old buddy who used to work with my dad. With each visitor I was at my dad's shoulder and observed the conversations.

The rest of the day I knocked out with jetlag.

The following days were a blur of a river of visitors. The flow was increasing with each day. Bengali villagers who spoke not a lick of English, wizened American Hare Krishna monks who wore flowing orange robes, and quite a few Chinese people - I guess my dad had done some outreach in China.

My dad began to shrink in size, becoming skin and bones. I barely left the apartment. My usual fire of curiosity to explore was extinguished and inside I felt like a cold fireplace. I was exhausted.

One day, my mom gently ushered me to come with her to the rooftop of our apartment building. We watched the sun set in silence, she stroking my arm the entire time. The river Ganga flowed off in the distance gleaming orange and pink in the evening. The last slice of orange slipped below the water of the Ganga. I reached up to brush my hair away from my face and felt that my face was wet. Then I sobbed in my mother's arms. The tears seemed bottomless, and when I went to bed that night I felt completely emptied out and exhausted and also strangely clean.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Surreal Conversation

(To know more about this Duet, click here. We have switched and now I am writing first, Rukmini doing art in response.) 

Art & Words Duet: Day 9 
The Return 
Part One - Surreal Conversation
(Note: this is a fiction piece)

My dad used to be a monk. Actually, he used to be a religious leader of the Hare Krishnas. Then one day he decided to get married to my mom and we've been living in a Philadelphia suburb for the past sixteen years. I knew my dad held some fondness for his experience as a Hare Krishna, but I could also see there was some unspoken pain. He rarely spoke about his past.

Then one day he and my mom sat me down in the living room.

"Elizabeth - " my mom began. I cocked an eyebrow. She only used that name when I broke curfew or had left dirty dishes in the sink. A long silence stretched out and I saw her eyes shine.

"Mom?" I said in disbelief. Mom never cried. "What happened?"

"Your father has bone cancer."

My face drained of blood.

"Stage four. He was diagnosed many years ago but has been in remission. Now it is severe. Your father has requested that we all go to India to a holy land near Calcutta."

"What? What about treatment?" I turned to my dad, who was pale, his face tight. "How can you give up?"

"We need to go, honey," was all my dad said.

I buried my head in my hands.

Flower Whispers

(To know more about this Duet, click here. We have switched and now I am writing first, Rukmini doing art in response.)

Art & Words Duet: Day 8
Flower Whispers

slender and graceful with flared petals, like a lady going to a ball
fireworks of color
considered weeds but look like queens
bold artists who paint petals in broad strokes
tiny painters with tiny portraits
grow out of the filth but are never touched by it
grow in tame rows in gardens and fields
grow out of cracks in cement
and in the windowsills of highrises
perched in millions of glass vases
or up high in trees
surrounded by guardians of thorns
or moats of lakes
or fierce scents
each and every one who ever lived
opens her mouth
and whispers silent words,
"glorious and beautiful I am
for hours and days,
but offer me to God
and I will live forever."

Saturday, August 29, 2015


(To know more about this Duet, click here. We have switched and now I am writing first, Rukmini doing art in response.)

Art & Words Duet: Day 7

For years upon years
I searched for The One
I cried many tears
and on the years spun

I looked inside
and looked out there
was tempted to hide
but honed my prayer

When I discovered my Lord
He filled the hole in my heart
I let down my guard
for my heart had become whole 

I became calm and content
spending long days alone
I watched the sun rise and set
Peace covering my soul

Now I didn't even want to get married
For my life was going fine
But of course that was when the Lord carried
me to His beloved
and mine. 

To write is to dare the soul. So write.