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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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.
There are times in your life when you can see everything coming together in a way that is so perfect and so fluid that you can only stand aside and watch the pieces fall into place, knowing that only divine Grace could so direct the play.
Two years ago, on the night after my mentor Ron Roth died, I had a vivid dream visitation; a dream in which my friend Rev. Susi Roos and I were dressing in ministerial vestments in the vestry of a Catholic church. Ron Roth, in full priestly regalia, came charging down the aisle of the cathedral, holding his bishop’s staff and scolding us loudly in his most annoyed tone.
“Where are you, I’m WAITING for you!” he said impatiently.
He turned back toward the altar, and Susi and I fled down the aisle after him, practically running to keep up. He mounted the platform and we slid into seats behind him and looked out at a vast crowd.
On August 9th, that dream came to life when Susi and I got into our ministerial vestments in the vestry of St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic church in Rialto, California. And though Ron was not there in body, he certainly was fully present for both of us and for the people of the parish in the San Bernardino area who came in droves to attend the seminar and healing service Evicting Cancer, which, two years ago when I had the dream, was not even a glimmer in either of our eyes.
When I first floated the idea for doing this interfaith educational and healing event past Fr. Steve Porter, whom I had met in Brazil, I did some rapid math in my head. I knew his parish was large, and I figured that among 9000 people, many lives must be touched by cancer. How many would turn out on a weekday or weeknight to hear two unknown female ministers was at best a gamble—I figured anywhere from 10 to 100. But the Holy Spirit had other ideas.
Unknown to me when we had first spoken of the idea was the fact that Fr. Steve has conducted regular healing services at his church for years, and had everything and everyone in place to hold a large-scale event that otherwise would have taken a huge amount of logistical arrangements if we were truly starting from scratch—which we weren’t. With Fr. Steve’s enthusiastic support, the first of two events that day had around 300 people in attendance at 10:00 a.m.
A wonderful musical ministry team gave their time to support the services, and to provide translation during our talks as well. After we were introduced in English and Spanish by Fr. Steve, Rev. Susi, who works as both a nurse and a mind/body specialist at a leading cancer treatment facility, spent the first hour talking on the three biggest mistakes people make when addressing cancer, and gave easy and practical things people could do to greatly assist the effectiveness of their treatment. She put all the medical information into a spiritual context, touching on some of the concepts from her in-depth teleseminars and home-study programs.
Then it was my turn to open people up to a higher energy transmission through teaching and leading worship (something I’ve done many times on a scale larger than 300 people) and in the laying-on-of-hands healing (something I’ve done in smaller events).
Fr. Steve had arranged with one of the prayer groups to provide support, and in accordance with the way they conduct healing services at this church, every individual is personally escorted by a healing minister to come for laying on of hands; the minister stays with them if they go “down under the Power of the Spirit” (involuntarily fall gently to rest on the floor while healing is done on an unconscious level).
Our spiritual assistants also functioned as translators as the vast majority of those attending had Spanish as their primary language.
I knew one thing: don’t prepare too much, because whatever you think will happen, it will surely be something different. And so it was.
I was ready to lay hands on people in blessing, but shortly into the personal blessings I was led to look at them in the eyes, and as I did, thoughts would come flooding in, differing from one person to the next, such as “have courage!” or “you are loved…” There was clearly an energy being transmitted through the gazing, and all I had to do was get out of the way and let it happen. I also found myself clearing much “junk”—removing invisible energy blocks before passing people on to Susi, who then anointed them with oil. As she blessed them, many went down under the Power. Fr. Steve moved amongst the people and between us, lending energetic, logistical and prayer support.
The morning, scheduled to go from 10:00 – 12:00, continued till 1:00 p.m., as people waited patiently in line for their turn.
The evening event began at 7:00 pm, and saw many more people fill the church. This time it was clear to Fr. Steve that at least half were not his parishioners, but those who had heard about the opportunity through friends or through the local Spanish radio station, and had come with hope in their hearts, some bringing children, some with older people in wheelchairs, some holding pictures of loved ones.
As the evening went on, the Divine energy in the church became electric; people were open, full of devotion and enthusiastically ready to receive Grace. Reflected on many faces as they approached, was much fear, pain and suffering, and devotion as well. But just under the surface lay a hunger and thirst for love, hope, and most of all, peace—the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The service started promptly at 7:00 and didn’t end till after 11:00. Fr. Steve estimated that we had over 1000 in attendance and about 700 who came up to be personally blessed. I had no idea how many; I could only see the person in front of me, and Juvenal, the human angel who was assisting me, pointed me where I needed to go in the cases of the elderly and wheelchair patients.
This time, as the evening went on, as I looked at the person in front of me, I knew within seconds who was physically sick and who was there for emotional reasons. If I asked, they would verify the information and give a few words about their situation. As expected, there were many with cancers, but there were many other conditions as well, often advanced and serious, as well as those seeking help with emotional problems.
People come to healing services hoping for miraculous help. And what they mean is, on the physical level, they want their cancers to disappear; their ailments—many of which took years and years to establish—to vanish immediately. I’ve been in this world of healing long enough to know that this indeed happens at times, and I believe that when it happens it’s to build faith not only in that person, but in all who know them.
More often, a new kind of journey is initiated. Susi quotes her first patient in this field who begged for her help, sensing Susi knew things that could help her, even though the doctors had told her they couldn’t do any more: “You turned my death sentence into a healing journey,” she later said.
While I’ve experienced that journey in my own life and witnessed it in so many others—some near and dear to me—that night took everything I’ve ever been through in the world of spiritual healing to a whole new level.
I stood at the center of the healing vortex and I could see, feel and know that an energetic transformation had happened for many attendees; that infusion of Divine energy would revitalize them; some in the physical, some in the emotional, some in the spiritual, and some in all three.
An infusion of energy always alters that which it touches; it’s a physical law. What’s less well-known is that it is a spiritual law as well.
As a result, I know that not only the people who came were changed; I, too, am changed.
For almost 30 years I have resounded with the quote from George Bernard Shaw that starts: This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…
On August 9th, I was fully used by that purpose. There is no better place to be. For that privilege, I am grateful to God.
Our gratitude also goes to Fr. Steve Porter for making this event available to the people of his community, with whom we now share a profound sense of love and blessing.