Spiritual Reflections

A Love Letter to Ramanand Sagar

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Ramanand Sagar was honored with the Padma Sri; an award on par with attaining Knighthood, or a Kennedy Center Honor

Recently, I coerced one of my Ramayana buddies into watching the original Ramayana tv series produced by Ramanand Sagar in the late 80’s; a series that revived a whole consciousness and national pride, and had far-reaching effects on what is offered on Indian television today. Having seen at least seven different tv versions of the Ramayana, some of them numerous times, this most recent viewing confirms for me that while there are others I have enjoyed and even “loved”, this original is in a league of its own.

I did not discover the plethora of Indian tv serials available on YouTube and DVD until just about three years ago. I’ve been a lost cause ever since, taking a few other with me down the rabbit hole. We have a secret club (well, not really secret, but somewhat embarrassed at publicly admitting our enthusiasm) exchanging links to yet another subtitled series, and we have been known to shuttle entire sets of DVDs containing hundreds of episodes back and forth from one end of the US to another.

When I have confessed this obsession to various Indian friends young and old, it usually evokes a “you’re kidding — you?” laughing response. That’s generally followed by full disclosure of their own obsessions with similar series.

Those of my own generation, (50’s and above) may then share stories such as the one I heard recently from a woman friend: how excited she was when, as a young woman, she happened to be in a hotel restaurant at the time that the entire cast of B.K. Chopra’s Mahabharat came in. Even telling the tale 25 years later her face lit up with youthful excitement. Or I heard a young father’s enthusiastic recounting of how he recently watched Mahadev online with his children and they used the opportunity after every episode to have a lively family discussion about values, morality and choices.

I hesitate to use the word mythological when describing these series, but it’s the way the genre is referred to by the tv industry.

For us, while it is entertaining for sure, it is not just entertainment. It’s a form of devotional practice—even if it does come with cardboard crowns, hunky actors and subtitles. The very last thing we do at night is to be absorbed in the “leelas of the Lord” (the divine stories of the lives of the avatars and dieties).

Listening to the stories of God’s play on the earth is one of the nine paths of devotion recommended by the great sage Narada in the Narada Sutras; that practice is the core of the Srimad Bhagavatam itself.

Of course, Narada muni probably wasn’t thinking about Mohit Raina as Shiva when he was first disclosing the devotional path, but it’s the 21st century, and there it is.

Convincing my friend to sit through many episodes of this first Ramayana was not an easy task, because it was produced when technology —and perhaps production budgets—were both relatively low. Compared to the avalanche of green-screen / Star Wars-like / Industrial-Light-&-Magic quality mythologicals that now flood Indian TV, this original Ramayana can seem primitive indeed. And some people, my friend among them, just don’t like classic movies with their slower pace and dated production values.

For those who were a part of the 80’s – 90’s Indian television-viewing population, (a group that does not include me), this Ramanand Sagar Ramayana remains the standard against which all other Ramayanas—and there are many—are measured.

For those nurtured on the current generation of shows like Devon ke Dev Mahadev or the current Siya ke Ram with their superhero physiques, stunning sets, drop-dead-gorgeous costumes and video-game-influenced special effects, it takes entirely rebooting a mindset to return to the early days of foil crowns and fully-draped females, not to mention some aging and (gasp!) flabby-by-today’s-standards actors (translation: normal people) in a couple of the famous co-starring roles.

To make an American analogy, I believe Arun Govil, whose placid demeanor and beatific half-smile immortalized his portrayal of Ram, would have about as much chance of being cast to play Ram today as Rex Harrison would have of talk-singing his way through the lead in My Fair Lady—if that musical was being premiered in 2016 instead of in 1956. No one gets cast in a major Broadway production anymore who is not a triple-threat: actor, dancer and singer capable of belting out the big notes.

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Arun Govil as Ram.  He was the first of a trifecta of television actors (Nitish Bharadwaj and Mohit Raina being the others) who learned to cope with viewers who worshipped them as the deities they portrayed. All three were known to handle it with respect and grace.

Comparably, acceptable physical standards for tv and movies have radically changed in the past 15 years, in some cases sacrificing nobility of character and depth of talent for six-pack abs.

I muse that Arun, a handsome actor and very well-proportioned by 1986 standards, would no doubt need to spend three hours a day in the gym to meet current expectations for a hero, as did Mohit Raina during the 2011-2014 filming of Mahadev.

The brilliantly nuanced performance of older actor Dara Singh as Hanuman would never make it to the screen today, nor would Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of Ravan; so much more complex than some of the blustery characterizations of later versions.

So, despite our periodically giving way to laughter at the plastic demon costumes that look like leftovers from the sale section in the back of an Oriental Trading Company catalog, it didn’t take long for us to get sucked right back into the Ramayana vortex, and to be reminded that almost none of the writing in the mythological genre today compares with the powerful level of prose in the screenplays that Ramanand Sagar himself penned—and I say that going only by the English subtitles.

I assume we all know how unreliable subtitles are in conveying the beauty and subtleties of thought of the original language. Subtitles usually represent several degrees of devolution from their source material. By now, I’ve watched enough hundreds of hours of Hindi to know when they are skimping on or changing the English flashing at the bottom of the screen. To be profoundly moved by second-rate translations says something about the power of the original.

Our current viewing has reminded me that portions of Sagar’s scripts—particularly the monologues and question/answer segments—contain philosophical wisdom of the highest order. They come across with a vibrational frequency that remains unmatched. That frequency is the difference between a line that resonates as truth, and one that simply serves up well-known platitudes. I believe it was with the attunement of someone who has imbibed and lived the truths of his dialogues that Sagar succeeded in dispersing Vedic wisdom all over the globe.

Current mythologicals, with each generation of technology, put the emphasis more and more on buff bodies, lush sets and special effects. I admit to thoroughly enjoying all those improvements. Unfortunately, much of the time, improvements in production values have come at the expense of another, higher value—the level of vibration that infused Sri Sagar’s writings in this and other subsequent productions. I am confident that sentimentality is not coloring my observation through a lens of longing for things from my youth, because my youth was spent in the Bronx, NY in a Jewish home and all things Indian were far in my future.

The philosophies Sagar spoke through the mouth of Ram or any number of his other characters are a combination of the many versions of the Ramayana he lists in the opening credits plus his own interpretation. But oh, what an interpretation!

I have come to believe that like Tulsidas, Ramanand Sagar was another incarnation of Sage Valmiki.

Tulsidas, widely believed to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, put the Ramayana into the vernacular to make it available to those who could not access the story in scholarly Sanskrit. It was much like Johannes Gutenberg taking the Bible away from the exclusive provenance of monks and putting it into the hands of the people.

Sagar likewise re-cast the story in the new vernacular—television—and made the Ramayana available again to new generations on an unprecedented scale. His Ramayana has been viewed by at least 100 million people worldwide. Some YouTube uploads, from the many people who have uploaded it, carry viewer numbers in the hundreds of thousands still. Talk about making something available to a new generation! Perhaps only George Lucas has had that level of impact on mass consciousness.

Every year or two, there is a new Ramayana plying the airwaves. Of course there is, it is an inexhaustible source of remakes and retellings, no matter how difficult some aspects of the story are for a modern woman. (I will save wrestling with that topic for another post at a later date). Ostensibly, this newest one (Siya ke Ram) tells the story from the point of view of Sita. I caught a (probably bootleg) upload on YouTube of several episodes. I had to do without subtitles; since that kind of official release may be a few years away. But the story is embedded in me such that I can watch it and figure out most of what’s happening.

Tellingly, I happened to start with an episode where Ram (presumably taking a ritual bath) rises from the river water like Venus on the Half Shell, or Esther Williams in a 1930’s musical—a gorgeous man, dripping wet and stunningly lit. I wasn’t sure if this was the Ramayana or a centerfold shoot. I know that my first association with what I was watching wasn’t exactly devotional. I laughed out loud, both enjoying it and marveling at how the edges of commercialism are pushed.

A quick visit to the series’ Facebook page has the gushings of this generation of fans, that this is the best Ramayana ever, the one they’ll remember forever and ever.

I’m sure that’s true for the audience of now. I also know that, sucker that I am for anything beautiful and artistic as this production is, that I will be on alert for when, eventually, the dvd’s will be released.

But I’m glad I saw it right in the middle of my revisiting that first, landmark Sagar series. Between that one, and the later 2008 version also produced by the Sagar clan, a standard was set in a way that I, and legions of others, will cherish…”forever and ever.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The Tandav: In Which Shiva Dances on My Fingers to Drop that Cucumber from the Stalk

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The Shiva Tandav: The Dance of Shiva

When you chant something for years on end, whether the prayer is in a language you know or not, you’d best realize that at some point what you are asking for may well be granted.

I was just 15  in 1971, when I heard my first Sanskrit chant in a yoga class. I often quip that the only yoga pose I ever mastered was savasana, lying flat on the floor for deep relaxation in the corpse pose. What did make an indelible impression, though I had not a clue of what any of it meant, was the chanting.

One part of the chant at the beginning of class was, as I was to find out decades later, the “victory over death” prayer; the “Mahamrityumjaya Mantra“:

Om Trayambakam yajamahe sughandim pushti vardhanam urvarukamiva bandhanan mrityor mukshiya mamritat

Like many things from the teen years, it was forgotten as life moved on.

Later in life, with a renewed focus on chanting, I was re-introduced to the mantra and incorporated it into my practice, but not until I was in the lobby of a small hotel in Madurai, India, did I finally understand the meaning. On a huge yellowed wall poster was  an English translation:

“OM. We worship the Three-eyed Lord Who is fragrant and Who nourishes and nurtures all beings. As the ripened cucumber is freed from its bondage (to the stalk), may He liberate us from death for the sake of immortality.”

Cucumber? Somehow, as I had chanted the sacred words thousands of times, I had never imagined vegetables to be part of the equation. I smiled at the unexpected metaphor—even as I understood it to be about releasing attachment to the world as easily as the cucumber falls into the hands of the gardener when the time is ripe.

Now, at least I knew what I was chanting.

I later learned that the chant was part of the Rudram Namakam, a long daily prayer from the Yajurveda invoking God to slay all our bad qualities.

So this particular prayer, which entered my life at 15 and was re-encountered in my 40’s, which I have repeated thousands of times, is all about asking the aspect of the Creator responsible for the destruction of illusions to free you from the iron grip of the world process as a ripe soul, so that true immortality—enlightenment—may be attained.

Buddha statue's hand Generally in Thailand, any kinds of decorated in Buddhist church, etc. they are public domain of Buddhism

The prayer is said to be so powerful that it helps the soul release the body at death and crossover to find its eternal abode. For this reason, when my dear friend Lila was in her last days in hospice, already unconscious, I sat with her playing endless rounds of this mantra 24 x 7 during her final three days, fulfilling her last request to me. Those of us who knew Lila are quite sure that her cucumber fell straight into the hands of her beloved Gardener.

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When I moved 18 months ago from my last comfortable 4-bedroom home in the Northeast into a small bedroom in a shared house with friends in the mid-West, I was partly motivated by economic necessity. The other part was motivated by the chance to live in what unintentionally became an intentional spiritual community. All of us “Spiritual Golden Girls” are, in our own ways, committed to God-realization, by whatever name each calls it. But all also have to find new ways to generate consistent income well into the future in order to meet the basic needs of life in a world that has appeared to become, at our stage, increasingly economically unfriendly.

Around the time of my move I made humorous references to those who understood that I was shifting into the “vanaprasth” or “forest” stage of life.

According to ancient practices in Vedic times, when you finish raising your children, you leave your family and all your possessions because you recognize that, well,  sic transit gloria mundi—”all things must pass”—and that includes you. If you have a spiritual goal, it’s high time to get down to business. (Or, as someone once joked to me: “Why do people start reading the Bible as they get older? Studying for finals!”).

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It is said that Alexander the Great had his body carried out of India with his hands raised to show that you leave the world with nothing. (No, this is not Alexander the Great, but it makes the point.)

While such lofty goals were not exactly the motivation for the move, when the option presented itself, not only did I recognize the practicality, some part of me realized that a bigger force was at work.

For as long as I’ve been on a determined spiritual journey, my prayer has been the same; to attain God-realization in this lifetime. One of the hallmarks of that state is total equanimity regardless of the circumstances.

The Jesuits call this “indifference”. In this context, indifference doesn’t mean “selfishly uncaring”.  It means, not being invested in one side or another of an outcome; being at peace in all circumstances, however things turn out.

Most major spiritual disciplines recognize that state of being, and have lots of practices to cultivate it. Another term for indifference is “equanimity.” A quick check in with any of my house-mates will confirm that I have not yet reached this vaunted state.

Realizing Equanimity: Diamonds Form Only Under Great Pressure

The great ten-headed demon Ravana (aka Ravan) knew something about the result of indifference. In a famous incident from the epic Ramayana, he does what demons do when their ego inflates beyond all limits: he challenges God Himself. (There are many backstories enfolded in this little incident, but I’ll stick to the main points.)

Ravana, a great Shiva devotee, uses his immense strength to uproot Mt. Kailash, Shiva’s Himalayan abode, intending to carry the mountain—Lord Shiva and all—off to his island kingdom of Lanka.

Shiva responds to this display of arrogance by merely pressing down on the mountain with his big toe, trapping Ravana’s (many) hands.

 

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Ravan has 10 heads and lots of extra arms.

But Ravana is no dummy.

He is the offspring of a great Rishi (sage) and a Demon princess. His ten heads are said to represent his mastery of every branch of knowledge. (Alas, knowledge and practice are, as we all know, very different things.)

One such piece of knowledge is that when you need to propitiate an offended diety, it is wise to sing their praises, long and loudly.

Thus, Ravan chants the beautiful poetic verses that have come down the ages, almost hypnotic in their sublime meter. In some versions, Ravana, no stranger to austerities, chants this prayer, the Shiva Tandav Stotram, for a thousand years.

Ravana conquered the three worlds of earth, heaven and the nether regions; he has untold power and wealth. Yet, when under duress, this son of a sage demonstrates that he well-understands what true freedom really looks like:

“When will I worship Lord Sadasiva (eternally auspicious God), with equal vision towards the people and an emperor, and a blade of grass and lotus-like eye, towards both friends and enemies, towards the valuable gem and some lump of dirt, towards a snake and a garland and towards varied ways of the world?”

                                                                                                 —from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana

Shiva—one of whose qualities is being easily pleased—not only releases and forgives the penitent Ravan; he grants him the additional boon of the mystic sword Chandrahas. The gift comes with the warning that if he ever misuses the Chandrahas for an unjust purpose, it will return to Shiva. Then, despite Ravan having won a previous boon of near-immortality, his days will be numbered.

Of note, “Chandra” means moon, and the moon is said to govern the intellect. Perhaps Shiva was giving his great devotee a sword of discrimination in one great last chance at redemption from the snares of the mind—or in his case, ten minds.

Is there any smidgen of a doubt that Ravana will soon abuse this gift and meet his end? Shiva may be “easily pleased” but when granting boons to those craving worldly power, the boons often boomerang on the petitioner, much like lottery winners who end up more destitute than before.

Ravan has become the archetype for the very worst aspects of the human ego. Despite all his great knowledge, and lots of wise counsel, he unfailingly opts for the most self-aggrandizing choice. Yet, his plea to be released is really our plea to be released from enslavement to pampering our endless likes and dislikes, and from the ever-escalating rat-race of attempting to fulfill our insatiable earthly desires.

In short, our ego-generated desires are all born of the illusion that happiness lies just around the corner in the fulfillment of  “if only…”. These desires, in which we invest so much energy, petition and prayer, often constitute exactly the worst thing possible for our ultimate good—yes, even our plan to capture God and carry Him off to our own private abode so He can be our servant and answer our prayers at our convenience.

Well, so much for that idea.

It does not go unnoticed by me that the answer to Ravan’s question “When will I truly achieve equanimity…” is at least in part: “When God drops a mountain on your fingers, that’s when.”

Hmm. So back to that ripe-cucumber-falling-from-the-stalk thing.

cucumbers hanging in the garden

This particular cucumber, (and I know I’m not alone here) clings stubbornly to the entanglement of her old familiar vines and remaining attachments. I may want liberation while still in the body, but, as so much of what used to constitute my world has fallen away, it appears that what is revealed is—as Caroline Myss used to tease her students—that I’d like to achieve it with some sort of recognizably comfortable life, a modicum of economic security, a good manicure and a latte from Starbucks. There’s at least an echo within me of the prayer of the young St. Augustine: “O Lord, make me chaste—but not yet!”

So many days I feel like the guy hanging off a cliff, pleading with God to rescue him. You know the joke: the voice comes from the sky: “Trust and let go!” The guy reflects for a moment and calls out: “Is anyone else there?”

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Be careful what you pray for.

Dam, Dam, Dam, Dam Damaru Bhaje…

In the background, I can hear the Damaru—the drum of Shiva—as the compassionate Lord answers my lifelong prayer and does his ego-smashing Tandav right on my fingers, insistent that I give up my remaining illusions of control, security and a whole host of other things I thought I’d handled.

O Maheshwar, I like my lattes with an extra shot…

Rock climber holding on

When will I be happy, living in the hallowed place near the celestial river, Ganga, carrying the folded hands on my head all the time, with my bad thinking washed away, and uttering the mantra of Lord Shiva and devoted in the God with glorious forehead with vibrating eyes?”

                                                                                         —from the Shiva Tandav Stotram, the prayer to Lord Shiva, attributed to Ravana

 

 

 

Into Each Life a Little Cake Must Fall: Lessons from a Cake-Tastrophe

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Pastry cook prepares a cake with cream and chocolate
Whoops.

This is the tale of an epic Cake-Fail.

It felt, at the time, like an absolute disaster.

Real disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes, wars and disease put this story in perspective.

But in our day-to day lives, there are experiences that feel like disasters at the time; experiences in which survival adrenaline is at work; in which you encounter failure a dozen ways over. Life itself may not be at stake, but it can be difficult persuading your mind of that fact when faced with the crushing of plans, or a spectacular “miss”when your results are at stake. Your results and failures, of course, never affect just you, but a whole host of people either waiting for your promised outcome, or cleaning up after you when something goes wrong.

Whether your flop happens in a single moment or in a slow build-up over years, when it does hit, all you can see is the ruin—a crisis to deal with, and no-way out.

In thinking about some of the more difficult challenges I’ve been facing recently, I found myself ruminating on that experience, so long ago now…

It’s Not Always a “Piece of Cake”…

It was in the early 90’s, during a few years when I was a stay-at-home mom. I had a stint as a high-end cake decorator—pastry school, seminars, cake conferences—the works.

I trained with some of the greats, whose names are known to all the famous cake people on TV today. It was before the Food Network and YouTube turned spectacular cakes into a competitive sport, as well as into a skill accessible to anyone with a computer. Back then it was still a rarified world of buttercream and gum paste specialists, and my own presentations were replete with “ooh’s and ah’s” from admirers when I produced my floral fantasies in sugar, the likes of which few people in that era had ever seen.

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Baby shower cake with intricate lacework, sugar doll and hours and hours of work…one of my favorites, done in 1992, prior to the birth of my niece, Jenna.

Through a caterer, I got an order for a cake for a garden wedding on an estate in Greenwich, CT. The couple were very specific about the kind of cake they wanted: poppy seed with raspberry filling. I went to my baker, Manfred, to put in the order. He was a Viennese pastry whiz who sold me delicious “blanks” (un-iced cakes) from his shop. I conveyed the rather unusual flavor request, and he nodded. In my mind, I was envisioning a thin spread of raspberry jam between several torted layers of each cake. Torting, or having many layers of filling in each cake, is part of the art of fine pastry, and I left the execution of same in his capable Viennese hands.

Cake. Chocolate Mud Cake #2
Torted Layers

Two solid weeks were spent working on the elaborate buttercream flowers that would go on the cake. There was no room for food in either my fridge or my freezer; the kitchen was a mass of colored containers of icing and Tupperware containers of frozen buttercream roses, sweet peas, bleeding hearts, daffodils and my specialty: multi-colored pansies.

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Not the cake of this story, this bridal shower cake shows a sample of some of the buttercream flowers I loved to do. This is one of the few photos I have available now. Credit for the buttercream technique goes to the incomparable Betty van Norstrand, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School.

When I picked up the “blank” cakes the day before the wedding, I saw that instead of a thin layer of raspberry jam, Manfred had created each cake alternating multiple 1/2″ layers of raspberry mousse with an equal proportion of cake. Not what I’d thought, but, hey.

Ok, then. I set to work.

Fourteen hours of decorating later, after pounding in the requisite dowels and structural supports that go into the architecture of wedding cakes; after endless intricate and meticulous buttercream Cornelli work: after icing flower placements and finishing flourishes, at 10:30 on the morning of the wedding I loaded the cake into the back of my minivan for delivery. Because my daughter was hardly more than a baby, she got to come on the delivery run too, as did my husband, acting as driver and loyal supporter and helper.

Did I mention it was a hot, humid summer day?

As my husband slowly pulled the car about five feet down the sloped driveway, he glanced in the rear view mirror and said: “Oh Shit!”

This was not a good sound.

I ran around to the back, lifted the tailgate, and stared at a fallen, soggy mass of stair-stepped layers. The mere vibration of the car had been enough to coax every torted layer to slip past all the internal supports and external baffling, The gelatinous texture of the filling had provided a nice slippery surface so that with the slightest encouragement, the cake layers had gone for a ride on a confectionary Slip ‘n’ Slide, leaving a disastrous mess of mousse and the pillaged wreck of cake and buttercream.

I can still feel the shock and disbelief that simply did not register at first. I don’t like to think about that moment, even 25 years later.

We jumped back into the car and drove down the hill to the bakery. I was in total panic. Manfred came out to the car and said: “Oh, Shit! Oh Shit!”

He was followed by his wife (the “bad cop” in the relationship) harping loudly: “It’s not our fault! It’s not our fault!”

Manfred shook his head ruefully and then looked at his watch: 11:00 a.m.

“I have some frozen layers in stock. Give me two hours. I can cover them with fondant—then you can just do the flowers,”  he offered.

Fortunately, I always made many more flowers than needed in case of breakage.

Two hours till pickup of the layers…that gave me…how long?

The wedding was at 6:00 p.m.. I had to deliver it well before then. I’d have two, maybe three hours to pull it together. At most.

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It looked something like this, only many times worse. Of course, we weren’t standing around taking photos, so I took this facsimile off the Internet. Note that the filling here is also raspberry jam! Hmmmm…

Now I had to call the client. We drove back home, because this was before cellphones. My heart was racing as I dialed the bride’s number.

The father of the bride answered.

“I have bad news and good news,” I began. “The bad news is that the wedding cake I just spent 14 hours decorating collapsed in my car. The good news is that you will have a wedding cake.”

I held my breath, waiting for his response.

The father said, in a voice full of compassionate concern: “Oh, how terrible for you!”

What? Yes, that’s what he said. He paused and thought.

“I think I can buy you a little extra window of time,” he said, with the satisfied air of someone who had just solved a puzzle, “The cocktail hour is at 6:30-7:30 p.m. Why don’t you come then, after the ceremony?”

I could have cried with gratitude. In fact, maybe I did.

While my husband scooped the buttercream disaster out of the back of the van with cardboard shovels that he concocted, I called my sister-in-law to beg her to please come and watch my daughter so I could concentrate on the Herculean task at hand.

She later told me she hadn’t heard my voice sound like that since my mother had died a few years before.

I got to work filling pastry bags and organizing the remaining flowers, entirely re-designing the cake in my head. I had no idea what size layers Manfred had on hand. Fortunately, one layer had escaped the “car”-nage—the small top layer that would rest separately on elevated crystal pillars. One less layer to worry about, I thought, even if it would look slightly different than the rest.

My husband picked up the frozen cakes from Manfred. It’s worth noting that putting fondant over frozen layers is risky, as the fondant will sweat with moisture. The fondant could tear, or the flowers get runny, or who knows what else. I just hoped if that was going to happen, it would take place after the cake was safely at the client’s and I was nowhere in sight.

At 6:30, I pulled my minivan into the driveway of the home-wedding-in-a-mansion in Greenwich. I could see the bride and the guests with their canapes and cocktails under a tent in the distance. The caterer came running out to meet me, threw her arms around me and gave me a huge hug, like a war veteran meeting another battle-scarred soldier. Together, we got the cake settled onto its display table in the house, put the top layer with the bride & groom decoration on top, hugged again and I left. The fact that it wasn’t poppy seed and raspberry seemed to matter not at all.

My husband and I had a dinner out, including a few stiff drinks—and neither one of us was a drinker.

Some time not that long after, my corporate career came calling again, and I laid my pastry bags down for good.

Things I Learned from the Great Cake-Tastrophe

People Recognize that Shit Happens. They Can be Surprisingly Kind and Generous. Also, Looking Back Through the Rear View Mirror, Grace Abounded.

That Manfred had extra cake layers in the freezer, of a wedding cake size— that alone was grace. Otherwise,who knows what I’d have done…I might have had to stack up a bunch of cookies on a plate and plunk a bride and groom on top.

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Commercial sheeter

Manfred also had a commercial sheeter (a machine that can roll out large amounts of dough or fondant in just a few passes). I could never have covered three large cakes by hand in that time, if I’d had the fondant in my supplies—which of course, I didn’t. He didn’t have to offer his help, but he did. In the middle of a busy workday and took his time to bail me out right now. When I later tried to reimburse him for the extra cakes, he told me to forget it.

I was also extremely grateful that it was the bride’s father who picked up the phone, because had it been the mother-of-the-bride, or the bride herself, it could much more easily have been a very different story. (I refer you to any episode of Bridezillas for potential reactions.)

Killer bride photo series. Bridezilla with wooden rolling pin. Studio shot
What I was expecting

The father was not only cool in a crisis, he was kind. His approach to the news was that it was just another thing to deal with, and everything has a solution. He took in the whole picture, not just how he or his daughter were affected. Miraculously, he put himself in my shoes and didn’t make me wrong. He had an ease with the problem-solving and came up with a solution. I was left with the feeling that this quality is probably what made him the kind of businessman who could afford a mansion in Greenwich. This was both Grace and Kindness in spades.

I offered the bridal couple a compensatory anniversary cake for the fact that they had not gotten their flavor request. They never asked for it. They could easily have asked for a refund, or asked me to fulfill on my free cake, but they never did.

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What I got

My husband did whatever was necessary in the background without asking about it, dropping whatever else he had in mind for his weekend. My sister-in-law dropped all her plans to come babysit the whole day, and babysitting was not her favorite thing. In a crisis, the reinforcements rallied.

When you share a failure story, you find others have trod the same path. That’s often what makes them compassionate, especially if something similar has ever happened to them. War veterans stick together.

Manfred, a master baker, told me in the aftermath that this is exactly why he hated doing wedding cakes; he’d had enough of his own disasters. Owing to the precarious nature of wedding cake transport, he had evolved the method he had done with me: he left the layers frozen, covered them with fondant at the last minute, put a few simple roses on the cake, drove like hell to the wedding location and prayed.

The caterer at the wedding who ran out to meet me with open arms wasn’t angry, or sniping about how I’d let her down or how her client weren’t properly served. She approached me as someone who has seen her share of disasters and pulled it out of the hat at the last moment herself. That too surprised me no end.

Even Masters Get the Blues

Chef Kumin
Chef Albert Kumin

Some time after this, I shared my Cake-Fail story with Chef Albert Kumin, with whom I studied at Vie de France Pastry School. Chef Kumin was a former White House Pastry Chef, the founding pastry chef of Windows on the World, a legendary chocolatier, and at the time, one of the few people preserving and teaching the art of pulled and blown sugar. (He also bore a strong resemblance to the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.) When I told him what had happened, he shook his head and said: “Once I was in a big competition in Canada. I’d worked forever on four-foot tall intricate woven sugar baskets with blown sugar fruit. They were so tall and heavy it took a few people to lift them. When I got to the site, I saw they had to be transported through a revolving door.” He shook his head again, sighing ruefully. “We did our best, but, the whole thing shattered in an instant.”

(Anyone who has watched Cake Challenges on the Food Network knows that transporting a large confection from the work site to exhibition the table just 4 feet away can be the most perilous part of the contest.)

Sometimes, Pressure Yields Great Results

The cake I actually delivered, with three large tiers plus the top layer, was assembled and decorated in less than four hours. In some ways, it looked better than the one I’d slaved over for four times as long. I had learned this as a painter back in art school: the quick impromptu variation dashed off after laboring long hours on some drawing or painting was often better than the one on which so much studied effort had been expended. All the carefulness of the first work gets metabolized by that long study; spontaneity arises from that integrated foundation in a freer, more poetic way.Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 1.12.16 PM

Epilogue: 25 years later…

As I have struggled in a period of great challenge, I was on a drive with a friend when this old experience flashed though my mind. Many things have not panned out the way I had hoped or needed; other things hold promise but are infinitely slow to materialize, or disappear before they can get going.

I realized that the memory of the Cake Fail came to me because from some perspectives, where I am in my life now looks just like that mess of buttercream and mousse smeared in the back of my car. I know the image came to me to give me fresh hope, and to remember, that even when you are looking at a situation to which the only reaction is “Oh, Shit”, a million small and large graces abound. And out of that mess arose an even more wonderful creation, supported by many other hands.

If I wasn’t on a diet, I think I’d have a piece of cake, just about now!

beautiful young woman eating cake secretly

What is YOUR Cake-Tastrophe? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

The Ramayana: How an Ancient Tale Slowly Made a Monkey Out of Me

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Ramayana art 01

About 20 years ago, I was standing in Borders Books in Stamford CT, leafing through this beautiful and expensive hardcover volume that I decided to buy for a friend of mine who was an artist as well as an India-phile. An artist myself, I knew a beautiful set of illustrations when I saw them, and knew she would adore the book. I was vaguely familiar with the fact that the Ramayana was an ancient Indian tale, albeit one I’d never read. As I paged through the story, I read the brief recounting of the tale that accompanied the lush illustrations. When I got toward the end of the narrative— which involved a hapless woman being forced to give a test of her purity by fire—I lost all interest, but I still loved the pictures. I meant to eventually buy myself a copy of the book, but I never got around to it.

I did not know then that the illustrator, B.G. Sharma, was one of the most famous modern sacred artists in India. I did not know then that the monkey on the cover would, over the course of many more years, subtly inveigle his way into my consciousness. And I certainly did not know then that this tale would slowly take over my very existence.

I’m hardly alone in that, though. Versions of the Ramayana are known all over Asia, and the tale has been told for time out of mind. There are hundreds if not thousands of entire websites devoted to it; there have been an abundance of film and tv versions made in India (every decade inspires a new remake that can keep up with advances in special effects); there are books of philosophy written about it and teachings in universities and business schools based on the lessons therein. It is told and retold and re-enacted and re-illustrated.

A dance company presents a classic interpretation of Ramayana
A dance company presents a classic interpretation of Ramayana

And anything that has that kind of sway over that many people for that long a time seemed to be at least worth familiarizing myself with.

One thing I came to appreciate: it’s impossible to have an understanding of India or Indian culture without familiarity with its two great epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The two express the very soul of India in a way that, in my opinion, has no comparison in Western culture. It forms a vocabulary and a frame of reference for everything from the most ordinary facets of life to the highest halls of learning and spirituality.

But that does not explain why it stole into my own life to the point where, really, I could only admit to others of the same ilk the degree to which it has taken over and pretty much crowded out 80% of everything else.

I should pause here to say that my involvement with The Mahabharata preceded my romance with Ramayana. It all started in 2005 during a visit to India, when I shipped home two huge volumes that constituted an abridged (only 2000 pages) Mahabharata, and was soon followed by a translation of the Ramayana. My obsession with both epics has continued pretty much unabated since then. It seems that The Mahabharata alternates with the Ramayana in my life, much like Beethoven contrasts with Mozart—different temperaments; both awesome, both transformative, both able to bring you into the realm of the transcendent if you allow them.

Each character in these epics embodies an aspect of human life and aspiration. We can see ourselves in all our greatness and all our folly, much like the phenomenon that makes Shakespeare timeless despite the changing idioms and languages of five centuries.

But that understanding was still not enough to explain my obsession.

Until finally, the mystery got solved a year ago, when, driven by this compulsion, I attended a three-day Ramanyana retreat with Swami Jyotirmayananda of Yoga Research Foundation in Miami, FL, whom I’d heard about from my friend Patty.

With Swami Jyotirmayananda & Divyajyoti (Patty DiFazio) at Yoga Research Foundation
With Swami Jyotirmayananda & Divyajyoti (Patty DiFazio) this year at Yoga Research Foundation

That retreat afforded me the rare opportunity to be in the presence of one who is both an eminent scholar & author and an enlightened sage. It’s a killer combo; and I’m sure he was drawn into my life at that juncture by the intensity of my interest. When I say he is an enlightened sage, I don’t mean enlightened as in “he sheds light on the subject”, (although he does that too),  but enlightened as in “has attained total Divine Union and bliss consciousness with God while still in a human body.” Only an enlightened sage can speak of the symbols and deep meanings in these stories not from a philosophical speculation or intellectual explanation, but from direct soul experience.

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Swami Jyotirmayanada’s wonderful exposition of the mystic meanings encoded in the Ramayana. Click on the picture to order the book!

What I realized in the first few hours of listening to him was that the reason these tales had moved into my mental neighborhood and evicted most of the earlier residents is that they are encoded maps to enlightenment. Far beyond being references for life in the everyday world, they are maps of the journey of the Soul to Re-Union (yoga) with itSelf.  At the deepest, most archetypal level, the part of me that had been on this path for a long time recognized that fact even though I could not name it. And understanding that which Swamiji calls the mystic meanings, resolves most of my conflicts about various events in the story.

I now believe that certain archetypes speak to our understanding of the Journey of Life, but on different levels. Some archetypes serve to inform us about the wisdom of leading our life on this earth plane. Many fairy tales come under this heading, as do Shakespeare and other beloved stories from many cultures.

The Ramayana (and the Mahabharata) do this as well, but they go a giant leap further—beyond the earth plane to the true purpose of the journey of the soul: Divine RE-Union.

I was taught by Caroline Myss that the ancient Mystery Schools divided the Mysteries into Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries were for those in the outer courts; those who needed the veil of symbols and rituals to enact for them great spiritual truths that the masses were not capable of digesting whole. Only Initiates were allowed into the Greater Mysteries; and the net result of the Greater Mysteries was attaining the actual integrated experience that All is One, aka Divine Union—enlightenment.

The Ramayana is the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries all rolled into one. At the level of the Lesser Mysteries, it’s a great mythic story with the usual  gangs of Gods and Demons, Heroes and Villains, Damsels in Distress, Triumphs and Tragedies. But at the Greater Mysteries level, it’s the Treasure Hunt Map to the Long Journey Home. The same holds true for the Mahabharata, which holds at its great heart the Bhagavad Gita, which serves as the ultimate scripture for more than a billion people.

The Ramayana contains something that the Mahabharata does not*: Hanuman.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 6.28.23 PM

(*Note: Hanuman actually has an important cameo role in the Mahabharata, but in the Ramayana he is one of the hearts of the story.)

Hanuman is the monkey on the cover of the book that first drew me in. Devotion to Hanuman was, at another point in my own journey, frankly, quite alien to me no matter how expansive my background.

Long before I had any familiarity with any epic outside of my own culture’s, I remember reading a quote from Sathya Sai Baba in one of my study groups, how Hanuman was the Lord’s greatest devotee of all time.

“Great,” I thought, knowing absolutely nothing about Hanuman at the time,  “a monkey is the greatest devotee. Then what chance do humans have? Very discouraging.”

When I actually read the story, I came to understand that the vanaras, which we translate as “monkey”, but which I’ve seen translated as forest dwellers, were far beyond our present-day conception of monkeys. In the Ramayana, they are the incarnations of demigods, born expressly to help Vishnu, the aspect of God that is devoted to preserving and sustaining creation, to overcome the evil which had gotten out of bounds. The demigods needed to take this form because the chief antagonist of the age, the demon Ravana, had secured a boon which made him invulnerable to all—all except for man and apes, both of whom he considered too puny to be concerned about. Vishnu descends to earth to aid mankind by incarnating as a man—four men in fact: Rama and his three brothers. Vishnu’s eternal consort, Lakshmi, incarnates as Sita, born of the earth itself, intimately expressing the connection between God and Nature, between Creator and Creation. In order to help Vishnu in this divine mission to destroy evil, the aspect of God that represents destruction (or transformational energy)—Shiva himself—is born as the invincible Hanuman, whose only raison d’etre is to serve Rama.

Rama and Sita, with Lakshman and Hanuman
Rama and Sita, with Lakshman and Hanuman

It was through Swami Jyotirmayananda’s teachings that I came to understand why the most recognized pictures of the Ramayana always depict this quartet: Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Lakshman, and kneeling at their feet, always, Hanuman. Ram is the embodied symbol of the all-pervasive pure God consciousness; the Eternal Witness. Sita represents the intuitional intellect, or the higher intuitional wisdom of the mind. Lakshman, the devoted warrior-brother-with-a-quick-temper embodies the Will to action, and Hanuman, the immortal and invincible one who could literally “move mountains” is the aspect of Devotion. Where there is Hanuman, there is Ram; where there is Devotion, there is God. It is the power of devotion that moves mountains, that melts the heart of the Lord, that creates miracles, that manifests our own Superpowers. Ram is victorious only because of Hanuman; Hanuman accomplishes all his victories through the power of Ram.

Among the various routes back to divine knowledge of the eternal Self, (yoga), Devotion, or Bhakti in Sanskrit, is the path of yoga to which I gravitate. I’ve never been a disciplined meditator (Raja yoga), I often fail to live up to my own noble notions of spending more time in selfless service (the path of Karma, or Action-oriented yoga), I’m not proficient or consistent in my occasional flirtations with Hatha (physical) yoga, and while I love to read, I’m far more drawn to the stories and legends (Puranas) than I am to pure Jnana (philophical inquiries). But Bhakti is like my home country: singing, chanting, mantras, silent repetition of one of the names or aspects of the Divine have become so integrated into my life that they are all like breathing.

Since Hanuman is the ultimate symbol of devotion, it followed that, whether I liked it or not, I have, little by little found that indeed, there is a legendary Monkey on My Back, and I have no intentions of shaking him off any time soon, or any time at all, for that matter. I do intend, from time to time, to share some reflections on the Ramayana and its well-traversed episodes, of which there is a seemingly inexhaustible font of interpretations and observations to mine.

Although I’d already read several book versions of the Ramayana, and had seen the great 1988 television series by Ramanand Sagar—which, when first aired, literally brought India to a standstill and which has been seen by an estimated 100 million people in its time—it was when I stumbled across the later 2008 Sagar tv version that I became a totally lost cause.

The music throughout the series by legendary composer and singer Ravindra Jain slays me, and to this day I react viscerally to the theme song.

Fortunately for me, I have infected my housemate, friend and colleague, Jan, with Ramayana disease. One night, when we were watching yet another go-round of some version of Rama’s story, she turned to me and asked: “Is this what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives? Watching the Ramayana?”

“Pretty much, yes,” I replied. “is there anything else?”

It’s my intention to share some of the rich journey with that story on these pages here from time to time, hopefully making the wisdom accessible to people who are not so enamoured of immersing themselves in the story.

Jai Hanuman! Jai Sri Ram!

 

Rosh Hashonah Reflections

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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.

Chasing Saints

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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.

Stay tuned.

Love and blessings,

Rev. Nettie