We went to the temple today

This place did not exist when I was a kid. The White stone crown crusted with statuettes juts out from the golden tinged fire of the midatlantic fall foliage. Heart skips. This. Is. Here.

We walk up to the entrance- four in splendid festival finery. My mom and I both have been eager to take the kids for their first visit. Diwali seemed the perfect time.

Shoes come off. Bare feet touch cool marble. Amplified sounds of temple chanting cause three- year old boy hands to clap over three-year old boy ears.
Daughter five clasps Patti’s hands. Time to meet stone deities in fine silks.

Time to press foreheads to earth in obeisance. Time to tell priests of lineage and stars. Time to eat temple fare, simple and hot and abundant.

Time to run giggling through grownups legs breathing in incense soaked air. Time for flame-warmed hand to hairline and holy water in hand.

Time to remember that stone and fruit and water and words and food and family all hold the divine.

This is what I wished I’d had. This is what I hope they feel. This is why we went. This is why, to the temple.

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The Dance of the Gods

“Mommy, why can’t we see the gods?”

A sudden question in the moments

before the bedtime forehead kiss

that shields her from dark dreams.

 

She is laid out on her bed.

Arms and legs spread wide,

berry black curls splayed

beneath her head.

Her old-young eyes

are moonlit night.

 

I grasp for an elusive truth.

“Some people think

they live up in the sky.

Some people think

they live in our

imaginations.”

 

“What do you think mommy?”

 

What do I think?

What DO I think?

“I think they live

in our imaginations,

and in our hearts.”

 

My truth lands with

a thud and stumbles.

Her truth rings

clear and high

as a glass bell.

 

“I think they are

high, high, up in the sky,

through space

out in space.

And if you go

to outer space

you will see them.”

 

She wants to be

an astronaut mommy.

And now, I see

that she and her children

will meet the gods,

see them there

touch them,

know them

and dance.

Diwali

At home in Delaware it passed with little fanfare. Perhaps we would light some dhiyas and put them out on the front steps. But my mom would soon blow them out, murmuring about the fall leaves catching fire.  I remember holding illegal sparklers in my hand, arm stretched out as far from my body as I could. I was nervous that police would come and see my holiday transgression. In the pitch dark of a suburban, North American, East Coast, November evening I thought about the monkey-god Hanuman leaping across the sea to Lanka.

The first time I visited India in the fall, I was 18, just graduated from high school, taking a year to discover my roots before going to college.  My two best friends from school came with me.  That night, we perched high up on a rooftop in Gujarat, languishing in the evening cool after a day of sweat and mosquitos. The night pulsed with drums beating from the street.  Shots of light zoomed from roof to roof, the playful warfare of longtime neighbors.  New bangles sang on our wrists,  gifted to us by a real life queen of old India.   On the streets, families piled onto scooters in their fancy dresses, off to trade sweets with friends.  No one spoke of the great deeds of the warrior prince. No one spoke of his return from exile.  No one spoke, but the scent  of victory, of triumph,  of duty fulfilled was thick in the air that festival night.

This year I forgot about it.  Life has been too full with living. We recently moved back in with my parents,  that same old house in the suburbs, those same dark November skies.  My kids, still small,  are in tune with the other holidays we celebrate; Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover.  Their world helps them to remember these days, to anticipate, to expect.  This night I forgot, and so they did not know. But at the last minute, my mom said,  “Let’s put out the dhiyas. Let’s do sparklers with the kids.  Let me sweep away the leaves.”

Together we stood on the front steps, the chill in the air keeping us close to the house.  The kids were dressed for bed, flannel nightgown and footie pajamas.  My mom held the sparkler tip to the dhiya’s flame. The old sparkler, unlit for years, burned slow before bursting. The kids gasped. I opened my mouth and sang, “Ram nam raas peeje, manava!”  A song my grandmother taught me that year, 18 years ago poured out from my heart.  My daughter told her teacher in school, “We said Happy Diwali last night!”   Perhaps I smell the scent of victory in the autumn night, perhaps the monkey-god still leaps across the sea.  Last night, we were three generations bringing light to the darkness, three generations erasing ignorance with knowledge, three generations singing songs, Diwali, last night, Diwali.

“Meditations on long-distance loss” or “How I spent the weekend celebrating other people’s holy days”

Identity

I was born into my grandfather’s house in India, the first grandchild.  I lived the first three months of my life cradled in arms, never once being placed down.  My grandparents, aunts, and uncle passed me around, giving me to my mother only when I needed feeding.  This was my second womb.

At three months, I boarded a plane with my mother bound for America.  Every few years I would return to that house in India. Bonds formed in spite of the distance.  Though I was a stranger to India in many ways, India never seemed strange to me.  There, I would always be the first grandchild, the first baby.  My grandparents were anchors mooring me to India even as I became more American.

My grandfather died last week. He was the last of my living grandparents.  With his passing, I felt the last of those anchors lift up into the atmosphere.  I felt rootless, unmoored.  My Thatha, the man who loved me so well, was no longer holding a space for me there.

Nationality

When I was 21, I relinquished my allegiance to all other states, princes and potentates.  I became a citizen of the United States of America.  My mother took this step long after me and with serious reservations.

The day after my Thatha died, my mother came to D.C. on a desperate mission to obtain a visa so that she would be able to travel to India for his funeral.  I drove her around from office to office and finally to the airport.  When it was done, we both felt a sense of relief. This time, she would be there to say goodbye.

It felt good to do something, to help my mother regain access to the place that she could never truly leave. It grounded me and gave me purpose. But the moment she left, I felt myself float out of my body, and follow her onto the plane.

Culture

In the days that followed, my disorientation was profound.  What should I do? Where should I be? Should I be there? What is happening there? Who can I talk to? Where am I? I began to read the Upanishads, a Hindu holy text. The night before my grandfather’s funeral,  I fell asleep with these words in my head:

“Let my life now merge in the all-pervading life. Ashes are my body’s end. Om… O mind, remember Brahman. O mind, remember they past deeds. Remember Brahman. Remember thy past deeds. O god Agni, lead us to felicity.”

That night, at 2 am, the phone rang.  I answered still in a half dream state and listened to my mother describe the funeral for me.  “We fed him rice.  His body was laid out on a palanquin. We carried him to the crematorium.  We poured water around him. He looked peaceful. He is on his way.”   I was there with her.  I could smell the smoke, the incense, the flowers, and the sweat.  I could hear the chanting, the tears, and the distant traffic.  I imagined temple idols, garlanded in flowers, watching with careful, loving eyes.

That morning I awoke from a dream.  I stood at the edge of a vast ocean, bathed in warm sunlight. Pink flower petals floated in the air above me, blown by the wind out to sea.  That day I called home, to India. I spoke with aunts, uncles, cousins, and my mother.  “I am there with you,” I said, even if it was not true at all.

Community

The funeral was over. The work week was done. And I was here, in America. And here, in America, the in-laws were due to arrive to celebrate both Easter and Passover. I was yanked from my hazy mourning reverie into a world of chocolate bunnies and Seder plates, Easter eggs and Matzo.

I took my daughter to a neighborhood Easter party sponsored by a local church. With beautiful weather, and smiling children, I felt welcomed by but distant from this earnest community celebration of resurrection and eternal life.  This was someone else’s holy day, someone else’s path to peace.

That evening, the Passover Seder was led by my father-in-law at my sister-in-law’s house. As is customary in my husband’s family, each family member took turns reading from the Haggadah. The Haggadah guides the celebration of Passover and commemorates the sufferings of the Jews in Egypt and their eventual liberation through God.  I missed out on most of the reading because I was busy dealing with my two toddlers, both over-tired and over-excited from the day’s activities.

When the kids fell asleep, I rejoined the Seder.  The meal was complete and only a few passages remained to be read.  I have been participating in Passover Seder’s for the last eight years and so I actually missed being a part of this ritual. I asked to read the next passage not knowing what it was.

I began to read, “Their idols are of silver and gold, the product of human hands: they have a mouth, but cannot speak; they have eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear; they have a nose, but cannot smell; their hands cannot feel; their feet cannot walk; they can make no sound with their throat.”

A fit of giggles seized me. “The idolater is reading the part about idolatry!”  I said.  Around me, my family by marriage joined in with chuckles of their own. My father-in-law winked playfully saying, “From now on, you always get to read that part.”

Faith

I do not know what any of this means. I do not know who I am, where I belong,what I believe or who my community is.  The things I do know:

1)      My grandfather loved me in the best way.

2)      Part of my heart lives in India.

3)      Another part of my heart lives in a 600 sq. ft. condo in D.C.

4)      Chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs are lovely reminders of rebirth and eternal life. And they are especially good for distracting a grieving heart.

5)      Children don’t care if you’re sad when they’ve had too much sugar.

6)      Like the show, the Seder must go on, and on, and on. 😉

7)      I am and forever shall be an idolater. Amen.