Saturday, November 28, 2009

Wish In My Pocket

A line of sixth grade boys stood tense on their heels, their eyes trained to the sky.

"What are they doing?" I asked as I settled down with my lunch at the picnic table with some of the other teachers of the Alachua Learning Center. The table was positioned only yards away from the boys.

"They're catching leaves," Yamuna replied.

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. And we've got front-row seats for the show," she laughed. Just then a great sigh brushed across the fields and rustled the trees. In moments, leaves began to flutter through the sky like soft glitter.

"Here it comes," Jamie said.

The boys sprang to life. They chased, dived, and tackled the air, the leaves sliding and swirling through the air like taunts. If two boys set their eyes on one leaf, they tackled each other to the ground with shouts; and as if playing a joke, the leaf would slip away from both boys.

When a boy would at last catch a finicky leaf, he would thrust it into the sky with a victory shout. Then he would jam it in his pocket... so he could catch another one.

And then, every so often, a boy would yell, "Ha! I get to make a wish!"

"Oh, I remember that growing up!" I marveled.

"Yeah," Yamuna said, "if you catch three, you make a wish."

Suddenly, the image struck me. Thousands of small, shiny brown leaves carpeted the ground in all directions... but the boys did not want a single one. They wanted three leaves caught with their own hands; only then could they make a wish.

I've been pondering the lesson of that afternoon recess for weeks now, and I've begun to realize that chanting japa is like so many leaves in my pocket. God is not an accountant, keeping ledgers of how many rounds I've chanted. Like the leaves scattered on the ground within easy reach, Krishna does not want or need robots to chant His name.

Rather, when I move my hands across sandalwood beads day after day, it is a way to measure how much I'll train my eyes to the sky, how much I'll stand on my toes, how much I'll sacrifice my life to love God.

And every day, when I finish my rounds, I make a wish: Please allow me to chant Your name, every day, for all of my life. 

image by renegade graphics

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Don't Walk. Run.

One cool morning in Varsana, India, four people set out to climb a mountain.

“Are we going to make it for Mangala Arati?” I asked my friend Bhanu.

“If we rush,” she said.

I looked up, where perched on the mountain was a temple, more like a palace, glittering with lights in the night. The sight held me in pause – just a few moments, because my companions were swift in their quest.

We wound our way through the silent village streets, and then began to scale the seemingly endless mountain stairs. One foot… in front of the other… keep going… I was so absorbed in the climb that when I finally looked up, we had reached the stone arc which lead to Sriji Mandir.

We emerged upon a platform lit by lights, and one last set of steps stretched up to the entrance of the temple, where the giant wooden doors stood shut. Crowds of people spilled upon the steps.

Our crew walked up and settled down as close to the door as we could get. “Get ready, Bhakti,” Bhanu said. “When the door opens, don’t think, just run. Run into the temple! There will be a stampede. If you don’t run, you won’t get in to see the Deity,”

“Okay, I’ll run,” I took deep breaths, my body tingling.

In a pavilion down the steps and on the edge of the cliff, a group of villagers sang bhajans; the drum matched the patter of my heart. The voices of the singers spiraled through the night. I looked out onto the sleeping village of Varsana – lights spread out like a glittering web, and I could see the spires of some temples lit up in the night. The breeze brushed past me up here, up on the mountain.

I whipped out my poetry journal and began to compose a poem.

Suddenly, Bhanu yelled, “Run!”

In one moment, all the villagers had jumped to their feet. I slammed my book shut. I too jumped to my feet and ran through the outer temple doors, which the pujari had not even finished opening yet. I kicked off my shoes and as I ran I stuffed my journal into my pack.

I couldn’t help grinning and laughing – for several moments I matched pace with an old woman in a colorful sari. At one point, our eyes met. Our eyes sparkled.

I dashed through into the open courtyard of Sriji Mandir and over to the main sanctum of the temple. Sriji Mandir is a bit unusual for a temple in India, for in this temple, women stand at the front, and men stand at the back. A banister separates the two sections.

So women began to push and gather in the front section. I dove in. I jockeyed my way to the center of the crowd and faced the altar straight-on. The curtains had not opened yet, but to the side the pujari waited in silence. I gathered many grins of complaints from the villagers, for I stood out like a beanstalk. I ducked a little, but I refused to move.

Women began to squeeze in… squeezein

I spied my friend off to the side. “Bhanu!” I called out. “I can’t breathe!” The push and the crush was so strong, I didn’t even have room to bring my arms up to shield my chest. Panic rose.

“Just get through it. You’ll be glad you did,” she called back over the melee.

I took as deep a breath I could and wanted to laugh in amazement. But I didn’t have the breath to laugh.

When the curtains opened, a wave of emotion swept over the crowd. I felt like a stone in the middle of a river – still and observant of the roar of water. Everyone sang Hare Krishna in unison at the top of their lungs. I sang, too - I couldn't even hear my own voice.

I decided the crush on my lungs was worth the view, was worth this moment.

When the arati ended, the curtains closed and the people dispersed to the courtyard to circumambulate Tulasi Devi in dizzy circles. I settled to the back steps of the courtyard, just to watch this world spin.

Bhanu sat next to me. “Amazing huh? My guru, Sacinandana Swami, says that we should be eager for Krishna like these Varsana-vasis.”

One year later, even as I live here in Alachua - a very mild, Western community -  if I'm approaching the temple and I hear an arati bell, I break into a run. I have realized that that morning in Varsana taught me to jump to my feet to see Krishna. Don’t walk.


Or you might miss Him.

So. My poem remains unfinished in my journal. I think I’ll leave it that way.

I heard this man's song last year, and it still brushes the edges of my heart. He sings after the Mangala Arati service every morning at Sriji Mandir. [e-mail subscribers can follow this link:]

To write is to dare the soul. So write.