Her oversized suitcase was open: a yawning, yearning invitation. She wanted to fill it with trinkets, with Mardi Gras beads and crow feathers and toys for the children, puzzles and sweets and crayons. They had told her to bring nothing but Tylenol and repellent and filters and probiotics and Pepto-Bismol. All the rest would be hers for a song at the marketplace, they said.
Why go to a marketplace when all I want is the rarest thing: the silence of no sound, no humming lights, the quiet of my own life? she thought. Why even fill a bag or go to some faraway overpopulated country for that matter? I already know that everything I need is right here. Inside this bubble I call me. In my life as it is. Available.
The silver panel light flickered on at that exact moment. She felt the beckoning of the sleek, square machine, open and ready, offering everything. Her fingers began to itch. All you need to do is cross the room. Tickle the keys. Find the marketplace right here. Easy as that. In no time, new hip packs and bras and wicking socks were on their way. Done.
Four days later, in Kathmandu, the marketplace was all around her, a bazaar as old as a birthing room for a millenia or two, the center of the Tibetan-India trade route. She started out for a walk with friends in Thamel, the old town, with the usual air bubble around her intact. Then two horns converged behind her, having reached a loud agreement that she was wrong, wrong wrong, weaving as she was between rickshaws and motorcycles and people and motorcycles and dogs and motorcycles and broken pavement and motorcycles and still more motorcycles.
Life itself, with all its technicolor terror and magnificence entered her and her private bubble popped. There was nothing to do about it but keep on. Day after day she ventured out into the too-muchness. Her dreams filled up with cacophony and incense and pashmina scarves. She began to long for an escape, and yet still she went forth.
One day she followed the labyrinth of narrow alleyways to the very center and found herself at a bookstore for pilgrims, a site made famous and prosperous by the Hippie Trail of the Sixties. It was deep and tall and stretched back, back , back, filled with esoteric books and tools for the seeker. From what she had heard, it was more humble, more hidden, following the earthquake three years ago. She fumbled around and then requested a title from a small, dark man with wire rim glasses. He nodded, disappeared up, up three flights of stairs. Just when she was about to leave, he returned with a pink paperback. It was a stripped-down version of the beautiful antique illustrated one that she had hoped to find, like the one she had given her own daughter as a teenager. But she had always secretly known that her daughter had never read it, would not. She didn’t find pleasure in long afternoons of reading, preferring to sing and dance instead.
This one was for Preeti, the girl she had come to know only barely, but one whose education she had supported from the other side of the world, one month at a time. She had longed to give her everything. But most of all she dreamed of giving her a way out from the fear and disappointment of her alcoholic stepfather and her sad quiet mother who had escaped with broken teeth and no home or room to claim as her own.
As she paid for the book, this treasure, she felt right, right right. But when she gave it away she felt even better. A pink, paperback copy of A Secret Garden. Hardly an object to be worshipped and savored, in her country of used book stores and garage sale finds. But Preeti grabbed it, kissed it, refused to offer to loan it to the other children who were already asking. She clung to it in every photo, proudly announcing that it was hers, hers, hers.
I used to think that my legacy as a daughter centered on shoes and clothes. But, in all fairness, there is more to the story. Years ago, after my father’s death, my mother started sponsoring little girls in developing countries. Mother never knew that she was a feminist, but it sort of oozed out through the seams of her Midwest life. Letters from Mexico, from India, from points unknown to her festooned her bulletin board and fridge, along with colorful photos of weddings and celebrations. She doted on her girls.
When she had a stroke a year and a half ago, I knew I wanted to continue another of her traditions. I began to research programs for girls in developing countries. That’s when I came across a troubling TED talk about the tragic consequences of the pressure we put on young girls when we expect them to save the world: see it here. Amy Benson, the speaker, is also a film maker who filmed a promising young female scholar for a year, only to discover that the girl had swallowed rat poison when she couldn’t find a way, as an educated young woman, to fit into her village in Nepal. Some of us pin our hopes on young women from developing countries, but that’s a whole lot of pressure in itself. The kind of support needed to truly prepare these young women to be leaders involves more than an education, I learned. I continued with my research. I later discovered that Amy, the film-maker, did her research, too. She went back to Nepal and sponsored the girl’s two sisters in a program that wraps its arms around the whole child.
So we both landed on Mitrata-Nepal, a small but thorough program founded by a therapist from St. Louis, one child at a time. It provides complete services for their children to enable them to make a leap into leadership once they get their education. Here’s the latest video from Amy. A happy ending. I’ve been donating 10% of every session for the past year to support the foundation. And I’m also sponsoring Preeti Lama, a fourteen-year-old from rural Nepal who is studying in Kathmandu. I’ll be meeting her myself in just a week when I visit her in Nepal. So soon my fridge will be full of exotic photos, too.
But this is a story about my own matriarchal lineage, and about finding ways that women can support other women to raise their children up out of poverty. This is where my daughter Johanna comes into the picture. These last months she has been traveling to spread the word about Shakti United, founded this year in the spirit of feminine power and sisterhood. She’s launched a Facebook group, a festival, and several other events with other women, in the spirit of sisterhood. The goal is to celebrate the female voice, literally, with yoga, mantras, chants, and songs. And all of this beauty also helps to support the education for girls in Nepal.
And so…in less than a week, I’ll be in Kathmandu connecting the dots in my lineage as I meet Preeti Lama. And each of you who I have coached will be there with me there too, in the spirit of strong, committed, caring women.
It’s not too late. Even within the rushing movement of summer, here we are mid-August. Which is still summer. Gosh darn it!
This is what I keep reminding myself as I watch the “doing” pace increase: It’s still summer. The best month for tree-staring. The rest of the season seems to have whirred by like scenes from the bullet train in Japan. Blurred but going somewhere.
But . . . it is still August. Quiet is possible, I remember, even for a few minutes a day. That’s when I find the deeper, quieter parts of myself that I sometimes call my soul. Soul-Retrieval is a “thing” I guess, but I see it as a DIY job. With that in mind, a late summer invocation for your soul.
Remedy for Lost Souls
What if you couldn’t lose your soul?
What if your soul just sometimes lost you?
What if it just couldn’t compete
With the list of what must be done,
Couldn’t be heard
Over the lightspeed whizzing of freeways,
The invisible waves of information,
of entertainment and stimulation
Couldn’t find you, caught as you were
In the death squeeze of entrainment.
What if it’s looking for you right now,
Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?
Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.
It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.
How about making it easier on your poor soul?
Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under a tree. Any tree.
Take nothing but a blanket.
Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.
Move in or out of the shade, as needed.
Sigh once. Sigh twice.
Stare at a leaf.
Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.
Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.
Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,
Purple clover or hairy yellow bumble bee.
A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.
Open my eyes that I may see / Glimpses of truth thou hast for me.
Place in my hands the wonderful key / that will unclasp and set me free.
Open my eyes. Illumine me. Spirit Divine!
These words, along with the very old tune, haunt me once again, refusing to let go until I listen. It’s a familiar evocation that has become a sound track of my life’s changes. There’s the quiet comfort of a childhood hymn, embedded even before thought or awareness. I sit in humbled silence, grateful that, on this somewhat rare occasion, most of the words and messages of my Southern Baptist past aren’t requiring a lot of translation to speak to my soul as it is now.
It’s a birthday and a passage for me as I begin my (yikes!) eighth decade of life. I’m spending a couple of days in solitude, on a seaside personal retreat. And then there’s the tune, paired with a certain deep plea of the heart. I feel humbled by the resonance of it. And then so many memories kick in, cataloguing the incidents of the past when the song came to me as a prayer at different stages and ages of life.. I’m momentarily grateful that I still have a memory for this reason alone. And when I don’t, I’m grateful for my sidekick Google, who’s always waiting nearby for a new case to solve. I’m amazed to discover the hymn, over 130 years old, was written by Clara H. Scott, the first woman to publish a hymnal.
My mother would be so proud, I think. She died last year, but for years she was way ahead of me when it came to feminism and hymns (or religion, for that matter). When she got involved in the “inclusive lyrics” movement for church songs, I had left all of it far behind, all of the crap from my childhood religion. Or so I thought. Years later, sitting by the ocean with the refrain wafting through the sounds of the waves, without my mother’s living presence in my life, I’m not so sure.
There’s a glimpse of the truth of the first stanza. I think about how meditation and inquiry have unclasped and set me free during the last decade. I think of all the ways I have come to understand at the deepest levels the true inner workings of the stories and scriptures and prayers of my childhood. As I sit in contemplative silence on this momentous birthday, I notice the unique (and yet universal) presence of Spirit, at all ages and stages. Always there, when I notice it.
And then the very last stanza pops into my mind. I realize I don’t even need to know what to call it or where it comes from, that voice of truth, but I celebrate it by singing aloud a song from my soul to the sea in front of me:
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes…ears… heart,
illumine me, Spirit divine!
An invocation. An intention. A celebration.
A prayer for a decade.