Stories from the Journey
It’s an unusually cold night here in Abadiania, Brazil!
For the only time in my five visits since 2004, the town is almost empty. It’s Saturday; the day that many people end their two-week stay here at one of the B & B’s (pousada, in Portuguese) that host them when they come from all over the world to see the famous healer John of God at the Casa Dom Inacio—the House of St. Ignatius. Most people, particularly those coming with groups, arrive on Sundays or Mondays, so this lull is brief. Late August is often a busy time here, and I hear it’s expected to heat up, both the weather, the population, and, well, no experience here ultimately escapes that description.
My sister-in-law Liz, here for her first visit, commented as soon as we stepped into the Brasilia airport how relaxed and non-frenetic the atmosphere was. She’s right—certainly in contrast to the environments of “do, do, and do more!” that pervade our lives; or compared to, say, arriving in Mumbai.
For those of you who know the crew at Irmao Sol, Irma Lua, the pousada that’s been my home away from home, there are a few new residents.
Joining Bono—the black mutt who has long been top dog here—are Max (see below) and a bevy of kittens who look to be about 6 months old.
There’s an older white cat around who may or may not be there mother, but Max in particular has taken singular joy in chasing one very friendly (to us) kitten, literally up a tree. Several trees, in fact. The kitten seems well-used to it, and Bono, Max and the kittens lend the air of a cartoon-chase to the environs. But it seems to be a well-rehearsed routine, and none of them are immune to being distracted from the chase, by say, an interesting piece of chicken or the noise of the dogs in the street.
It was good to have this day to settle in. We’re both feeling—you know—the way you feel when you’ve kinda sorta gotten some sleep, maybe, not sure, for a few hours in an airplane. Liz took a sleeping aid on the advice of her travel-savvy husband, and was out cold, but woke up telling me she hadn’t slept all night. Imagine her surprise when I told her that indeed she had. We’re both ready to hit the hay, and it’s 7:40 p.m.
The adventures pick up steam tomorrow. Boa noite!
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.“
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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