As the weeks go by, the memory of how she looked at the end is fading. The steroids had rendered her an almost comic cross between Buddha and Uncle Fester. She’d long since lost her hair, and her features had all but disappeared into what was now a swollen and unfamiliar visage. I still see the last moments we were with her, as her eyes went back and forth from one to another of we “sister” friends who had come to say our goodbyes. She had a half smile on her face, at the same time her eyes were thoughtful. It was a quintessential Carla expression. At the time I thought she might have been confused. But Carla was always a thinker who needed time to process things inside.
I believe it was the moment she was really getting it. This was finally it, the road had come to a close. Her gaze caught mine for a long, long moment.
“I have to go?” she half asked, half stated. Then she repeated it, as if to herself: “I have to go.”
“You’ve been a great friend,” I had said to her a few moments before this last declaration.
“It’s been a pleasure,” she replied with her eyes closed, a loving half-smile on her face.
Now that I remember it, I know where I had seen that expression before. It was on my mother’s face, 24 years ago, as I stood at her hospital bedside in her last conscious moments, listening to what were to be her final words. Her closed eyes had signaled: “I’m tired, I have to go.” The half smile as she spoke her last phrase, said everything else.
I was seeing that expression again, on the face of my friend.
The truth was, I hadn’t seen a lot of Carla in the past year or so since she moved from Westport further up the Merritt Parkway to a condo in Stratford. Whereas during our years singing together in our group, Soulfyre, we had seen each other at least once a week, (often at her home), the same disease that had ended our group’s performing days eventually ended Carla’s social life as well. That isolation is where I think she suffered the most.
For a very introverted person, Carla was a real social animal. She enjoyed the bustle of her grown kids coming and going in the chaotic household. She loved having us over for rehearsals and visits at 7 Loren Lane in Westport. She loved being a guest, too. My last good memory of her is her staying over after both Christmas and Passover this year. She made it down here on her own, but needed to stay over rather than drive home.
She loved to stay up late and talk on such occasions. And to watch movies. Carla was a movie-going companion, always up for going to a flick or watching one at home. She had her own little soundtrack: a habit of exhaling a deep audible breath whenever there was a moment of strong emotion on the screen; whether it was happiness or sadness didn’t matter. She was completely unaware of this trait till one day this year I told her about it. It surprised her, and made her both laugh and think about its source. Laughing and thinking, that was Carla.
Carla and I had many great kitchen talks over the years. They followed a pattern. She would share a dilemma of a perception in which she knew she was trapped, and she would plunge headlong into an inquiry into breaking down the limitations of that viewpoint. I would hear that emotional exhale of hers often in such interactions. She was determined to wrest out of me whatever perception would get her another measure of freedom. And many measures she did indeed win.
Carla knew I had something she wanted. She told me so right from the beginning in those words: “whatever you have, I want it,” she laughed. And she worked herself like hell to get it. She remade her interior self more dramatically than anyone I’ve ever known
I want some of what she had too. Her bravery. Her kindness. Her sensitivity to others. Her pitbull quality of holding onto something she wanted to have happen and not letting go. Her absolute fearlessness in facing her future, even if what she was facing would have cowed many a weaker soul—like mine, perhaps.
We didn’t see each other much recently, as I said. So not seeing her now hasn’t felt so strange. Just getting through the real “end” when it was finally, inescapably here was the hard part. Now, it’s almost back to life as it was before she passed.
Those last images are mercifully beginning to fade. And as they do, I find I miss my friend. The one who never stopped being a hippie, who wore the woven Guatemalan pants that I had tossed away when I outgrew them on my way up the scale, who had very few material desires other than the wish to travel, whom I had to gently tell, the day we went to the NY Philharmonic on Valentine’s Day in a blizzard, that it really wasn’t appropriate to knit during a concert, even if it was a rehearsal.
The Carla who is coming back now is the one who always arrived with a big smile and her special laugh, the one where she would toss back her head when something was really funny. I see her tending pots on the stove, cooking for her kids long past the age when they could take care of themselves, simply because she loved doing it—both the cooking and the caring. I remember how much she loved being with me in Brazil at John of God. Abadiania was the closest she ever came to the life she’d probably envisioned in the 60’s—a small town where people walked the streets with smiles and community, agragarian, peaceful. She had wanted very much to go back there and to stay for months, if not forever.
I asked her at that last hospital visit to find a way to let us know she was with us once she was on the Other Side. She nodded yes. I’m a medium myself, as a few of us from Soulfyre are. But I’m waiting for something really big. Something I know I couldn’t make up. And I know I’ll get it one day.
Because once Carla gets something in her head, something as small as death of the physical body certainly isn’t going to stop her.
So I’ll end with the words she said to me, back atcha.
“It’s been a pleasure.“
In the first 24 years since I left New York City for the suburbs, there was only one time when we lost power for days. It was when my (then) husband and I had just moved to Armonk, NY and Hurricane Gloria passed through, forcing us to move in for three days with my parents in the Bronx since we had no power, water, etc.
(In those days there was no internet, and no cell phones, the fax had just been invented. The reality of being tied to devices in order to run business and life was still a decade away.)
In the scant two years since I’ve moved to my current location in CT, there have been four times when the power has been out for several days…up to four or more.
So, the Northeast was socked by yet another storm that knocked everything off kilter, worse than when Hurricane Irene came by in September. the leaves are still on the trees and a heavy wet snow fell; the weight of it brought down power lines and trees all over. There’s a state of emergency on in many areas around.
After spending a night in a very cold house in the dark, I packed up the perishable contents of my freezer and made my way around blocked roads to my brother’s house 40 minutes away. They have a generator and so had light and heat.
One gets very grateful for such “small” things. I didn’t think I’d get back to my house for a week or more, but they did our block quickly, so it was only two days this time.
Many of my friends, as well as my business place, are still without power and are camping out where they can with friends in the city, or are just making due. At least the temperatures went back up to “normal” fall levels.
In the midst of all this, the street was just clean enough by Halloween that the trick-or-treaters came out in force, including people who migrated here from other areas where power cables are still down and too dangerous.
Disruption of all kinds is the new normal. And with each one comes an increasing sense of vulnerability at just how dependent we are on this fragile infrastructure we call modern life.
On my first visit to India for a world diversity conference in 1997, I made friends with Marisa, an Indian woman who lived in Mumbai. Though she was Catholic, she was quite comfortable in the Hindu culture surrounding her. While sightseeing in the city, she took me to a temple that, if it wasn’t actually ancient, was in enough disrepair to qualify it as such.
We took our shoes off at the designated place in the outer courtyard. Like many entrances to Hindu temples, there was a statue out front. It was a bronze cow or bull, (I wasn’t sure), that had been worn shiny by countless hands touching it in reverence before entering the inner sanctum. Suspended over it was a bell.
“Come, let’s ring the bell, and let the gods know we are here,” she smiled, beckoning me to follow her example.
I kept looking at the shiny bronze cow, which in all its relaxed golden glory looked exactly like something Charlton Heston smashed with the original tablets of the Law in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”—just seconds before cartoon fire descended from heaven to consume all the “ye of little faith” crowd. (Those were top-of-the-line special effects back then, in the days before Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.)
Despite my multi-cultural self, all my Jewish upbringing arose, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch that golden calf…er…cow…er…bull. (I did, however, follow Marisa into the temple).
Such is the power of cultural implants.
Judaism and Islam share something in common in this area: one is not supposed to make “graven images,” or represent God in any physical way. Art will express itself somehow, and from this proscription, you get the absolutely stunning Islamic calligraphy and decorative arts. (I think Jews were too busy being chased out of various countries around the world to develop a parallel artistic accomplishment on the same scale).
The point is, one didn’t paint pictures of God.
Someone failed to tell that to Michelangelo, however, and to countless other Christian artists before and after him. As we all know, the Catholic and Orthodox churches developed a sophisticated vocabulary of imagery precisely focused on statues and icons, thus giving us some of the greatest works of art in the Western world—which, as an art student all my young life, I imbibed with my milk and cookies (and later wine and cheese). Yet, like many outside that culture, worship that included images or even more disconcerting, statues, was beyond my understanding.
As I later got more and more immersed in teachings and culture of India, I got a different lens on the whole phenomenon. The Jungian writer, Robert A. Johnson, wrote in his biography Balancing Heaven & Earth:
Soul work, or inner work, takes place when something moves from the unconscious, where it began, into conscious awareness. The path is never straight and neat inside oneself, as if you could go to a library and do all your inner work there. Instead, when something is ready to move from the unconscious to the conscious, it needs a host or intermediary. Generally this intermediary is some person or thing.
In other words, a saint, guru, picture or statue.
Spiritually speaking, we need to project those divine qualities that are our birthright, that we carry within us, onto someone or something else.
Seen in a magnified way in another, it become easier for us to grow into those holy qualities, be they goodness, kindness or holiness itself. Indian tradition takes that a step further—a student literally worships the guru as God, with the understanding that the Guru is in fact a stand-in until the student can hold that Divine energy him/herself.
I attended a ritual in the city of Madurai on my last trip in 2009. At the end of the nine-day Dassera festival came an evening devoted to the women. As part of that holiday’s ritual, a young girl was dressed up as a goddess Parvati, and the older women fed and tended to her in a worshipful manner. The beautiful girl accepting the devotions of her elders was graceful and stunning. At the core of the ceremony was yet another variant of that all-encompassing Sanskrit greeting: Namaste: the God in me beholds the God in you.
When Mother Theresa was asked how she could embrace the most destitute and dying on the streets of Kolkata, she answered that when she looked at them, she saw Jesus. This, too, is the projection of the Divine.
In my home, I have little altars in most of the rooms. All around are pictures of Great Ones, statues, rocks; all triggers of remembrance. My daughter, when she was younger, used to complain that the house looked like a monastery, “with Bibles everywhere!” (The two Bibles I have were in my study.)
If we see the Divine outside ourselves enough, eventually we bring it home where it belongs, in the inner temple.
Where are your divine projections focused? Where do you think they come from? (People of different backgrounds see that divine seed differently.) How do you remember the sacred?
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Holidays live in the past as much as in the present.
Major holidays inevitably serve as triggers of memories: the memories of childhood celebrations, the memories of phases and people in adulthood that have come and gone. They are visceral, sensory-laden cues: the sight of a holiday symbol, the sounds of songs or the chants of rituals, the smells and tastes of foods that we eat now while mixing in memories of “then.”
The High Holidays bring a mixed bag of emotions for me. The season has always carried with it a subterranean unsettled feeling.
Growing up, we were barely a generation away from the Eastern Europe “Fiddler-on-the-Roof”-Russian/Polish-Ashkenazi-Jewish experience that continued to live on vividly in our own young lives in the form of the elders of our big, Jewish cooperative neighborhood.
But comparisons to the shtetls of Eastern Europe cease there. There were no men with sidecurls, tsitsis (fringes) and long black coats on our streets. Yet, who among us had a grandparent without a heavy Yiddish accent? Impossible to imagine!
Mom’s parents, and many of their crowd who formed the community in which we lived, had thrown away religion as shackles that kept them oppressed. They were modern, progressive, labor-supporting humanists. My mother professed herself to be an atheist, with the Holocaust as her ultimate proof.
But Mom was a fiercely committed Jew. She practiced a highly-refined brand of Culinary Judaism blended with a secular observance that merged our rich Yiddish-influenced environment with a big dose of pro-Israel activism. She was committed to our Jewish identity as a people and a culture, and she maintained an uneasy truce with the religious aspects from a safe distance.
Every now and then, we got a smattering of religion thanks to the fact that the only synagogue in our area was Orthodox, so if there was a bar mitzvah in the circle of friends, it was going to be under the aegis of the fire-and-brimstone-leaning Rabbi Sodden.
(I must pause here to note that my impressions of Rabbi Sodden were formed from my few visits to his temple on the High Holy Days, where, like any good Orthodox practitioner of his day, he took the opportunity to harangue the once-a-year crowd and douse them in a little bath of guilt. Later, under other circumstances I got to see a more empathetic side of him. I read that he passed in 2007, having served his community for 60 years.)
Dad, on the other hand, had served some time in cheder, and had a more religious inclination, although it wasn’t much expressed.
Except for at one time of year: The High Holidays.
This, I realized, was the Season-of-Mom’s-Discontent.
The September holidays weren’t at all like Chanukah for her, with its child-centered celebrations happily observed—awash in presents, candles and oil-infused latkes. And they weren’t like Passover, either; Passover, with its dramatic story of the Exodus—and with a dinner that took a month to prepare; relatives joining from near and far at a table that reached from one end of our Bronx apartment to the other—had the same importance to Mom that Christmas has for Christians.
But these Days of Awe—it seems there was no escaping the fact that they were days of Awe about one’s relationship to God. It was a temple holiday, or more properly, a synagogue holiday.
And we didn’t go to synagogue.
Except, Dad usually made his way to the shule during the holidays, and, mindful of the fact that he was not a regular, he would stand in the very back of the sanctuary that had its folding doors rolled back to accommodate the crowd.
Our erev Rosh Hashonah ritual consisted of mom preparing a big dinner, set out on the white tablecloth reserved for Shabbes (yes, we observed Friday night as a special dinner/family time). She would then periodically go to the window where she would watch impatiently for the sight of people coming back from the shule. Often there was an air of annoyance or impatience, one I can now well appreciate, as she had four hungry children to keep occupied, holding them off till Daddy got home.
In New York City, at some point long after these memories, the Board of Ed decided to close the schools for the Jewish holidays. Mom, a NYC teacher at that point, remarked that so many of the teachers of that era were Jewish, they really didn’t have the option to stay open with that many teachers out. But when we were young kids, the schools were open on the High Holy Days, and we, like all the Jewish children, stayed home.
There was no school for us, but no playing around either. We got into our dress clothes and walked around the neighborhood to visit our grandmothers. When I asked once why we couldn’t go to the park, my mom uneasily stated that if you weren’t in school, you were supposed to be in shule, and so she did not want us to be cavorting in the playground. This, then, was her show of respect. We dressed up, visited both our grandmothers, and waited for school hours to be over to be released to play. The message, she repeated often, was that religious or not, if you did not respect your own holidays, certainly no one else was going to.
A few times in my memory, Dad took us to the synagogue, perhaps at the end of Yom Kippur, for the last few moments of the service, to hear the final blast of the shofar. Since it was an orthodox shule, my going required my mother’s presence, in order for me to stand with her on the women’s side. I felt her impatience with a service all in Hebrew, her general discomfiture, her feeling out-of-place. I remember her turning to me and saying “that’s Adon Olam” (the song/prayer)—“it means that it’s almost over” she said with a sigh of relief, both that the service was ending and that she had at last understood something in all that Hebrew.
Obviously, I was very sensitive to my mother’s signals.
There was one place among the High Holiday observances where Mom conveyed a different sort of tolerance for the worship at the synagogue. It was when Dad would go for the afternoon Yizkor (memorial) service, in memory of his parents and his brother and sister-in-law. Mom did not accompany him; her memorials were in the candles she lit on that occasion, but there was a different sort of understanding in her voice when she referred to that. We did not go with Dad for that either, because in Orthodox practice, you did not go to Yizkor if your parents were alive.
As time went on I married, and with my husband, I joined a Reform temple. There, High Holidays were a family affair, with men, women and children seated together. It was a whole different atmosphere, with new music and new styles of worship. There were many years of enjoying that familial experience. But after my divorce, the suburban family temple no longer felt like home, and as my spiritual life shifted, many aspects of that environment no longer spoke to me in quite the same way.
Every year I question whether I want to go to a service or not. Some years I do, some years I don’t. I laugh now, that it appears that in this area, I have inherited some of my mom’s ambivalence around this particular holiday, or perhaps around traditional observance of it. I’m hardly alone. Ask any non-orthodox Jewish person if they are fasting on Yom Kippur and watch the dance begin.
I didn’t go to a service this Rosh Hashonah. I didn’t have a round challah, or dip apples in honey, or even spend time with my siblings.
But more importantly, I am aware of what this holiday represents: a time to review your life; to make amends, to complete the past, to start anew. This year, Rosh Hashonah was an internal affair. Next year? Who knows?
May we all be inscribed for a good year.
While visiting Julio, (my friend of more decades than I care to admit) at his house in Florida some dozen years ago, I found in the guest bedroom—a room that vaguely resemble a monk’s cell if you don’t count the opulent bedspread and plush mattress—a single book with browning pages. It bore this intriguing title: “The Incorruptibles”. While it sounded like a 1950’s movie starring a gang of teens, it turned out to be a captivating account of many Catholic saints whose bodies were documented to have been found intact years or centuries after their death. I stayed up late into the wee hours, reading the somewhat grisly details of various body parts or even whole bodies in inexplicable states of preservation; no mummification required.
Around that time we were planning a trip to Italy. I was also studying with the mystic, healer and former Catholic priest Ron Roth, whose main guide was the 20th-century mystic and Capuchin priest, Padre Pio. So when I floated the idea of a detour down the Italian boot to San Giovanni Rotundo to visit Pio’s home-base, Julio’s eyes lit up as did his face with his (paradoxically) devilish grin: “I’m there, baby! I love chasing saints.”
Julio has a gift for such bon mots. The phrase made me laugh aloud, and it stuck. As it turns out, the two of us did chase saints across Italy, or as we later joked, Padre Pio chased us across Italy. In years after, we went on to chase saints halfway round the globe.
When I was growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx, in a secular Yiddishist environment, such a notion as saints would bring puzzled laughter. I remember my mom making humorous comments from time to time, like: “It’s the building next to that church, you know: ‘Our Lady of Ten Thousand Mitzvahs.’ ” In a largely agnostic/secular/atheist environment, the idea of devotions to deceased mortals and their representative statues was an inexplicable phenomenon of a culture diametrically opposed to our own.
It took many years of study and experience for me to begin to understand the world’s attraction to saints, and my own as well.
The first big piece of news for me was that those regarded as saints are found in every faith, and devotion to them is not limited to Catholicism. There are even those who could rightly be regarded as secular saints. The second was that there are among us today many who by any regard fit that description.
I’m fortunate enough to have been in the presence of some of the greatest of our time. It’s been my encounters with the living ones that gave me the understanding of the intense devotion to those who no longer walk the earth.
So, I think for a while, I am going to run a periodic series of reflections on sainthood; what it means for us in this era, and some of my personal experiences with those whom we may hold in this regard.
I leave this post with my favorite quote from one of my most powerful influences: the writer, Jungian psychologist and perhaps saint himself, Robert A. Johnson. Anyone who has heard one of my talks knows I am fond of quoting him, and this paragraph from his autobiography: Balancing Heaven & Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations sums up one of the most important and least understood aspects of this rich topic. Having once been invited to be the saint for a rural village in India after he spent several weeks there, he later wrote his reflections on the experience, which, while he kept in humble and humorous perspective, clearly affected him deeply. While I have come to appreciate other aspects that distinguish saints of all backgrounds, this unique perspective provides a good jumping off point:
I have meditated on the subject of sainthood many times since this experience, and I find a bit of wisdom in understanding that saints are people who suffer the projection of unlived holiness from a group of people and are made to serve in this strange role whether they like it or not. It is only the other side of the coin of scapegoating, in which a group chooses an individual to carry the dark side of their own personalities, which they are unwilling to own for themselves. This idea has been borne out by careful examination: every group I have ever experienced has done this living-out-by-appointment of the human elements that are too good or too bad for an ordinary person to accommodate in his or her own life. The group gives that overwhelming characteristic to some person nearby. God help the poor person who is landed with either of the excesses that humankind finds equally difficult to bear.
Love and blessings,