For Saroj Sachdev
When I was 19 and a student in France, I lived with a wonderful family as part-time nanny for their 5 children. One time, when the parents went off to Paris for a few days and left me in charge of their brood, Patrick, the 3 year-old, came down with a fever and I had to call in the doctor who lived near the old church.
The children and I gathered around the burning ‘petit Pat,’ holding our breaths while the doctor examined him.
“He is going to live,” he assured us with a twinkle, “but you have to place a suppository in his anus twice a day to bring down his fever. M le docteur did not demonstrate how to do this, assuming that the American nanny knew how to find Patrick’s anus and what to do with a suppository once she found it. He left me with a bag of little waxy buttons and told me to let him know in the morning how Patrick was doing.
I was scared out of my wits, unwilling to confess my ignorance to any of them, and with no choice but to pretend efficiency at inserting suppositories into little kids’ bottoms. So I took a deep breath, found the opening not at all where I expected it to be, and pushed the slippery little button in.
You may think this trite, but that was a watershed moment in my life. I had discovered that I was capable of more than I thought, even when I had no idea what I was doing, and none of the children, including Patrick, ever even guessed at my dilemma. Either the ability to rise to the occasion is a built-in quality we all share, or I got assistance from the angels that day, but one way or another I quickly became a deft inserter of suppositories. Patrick recovered, of course, and I won high praise from the other children when their parents came home.
It has happened many times over the years that I’ve found myself helpless or stuck in some situation, but then assistance has appeared from out of nowhere, as if I were being guided by an unseen hand that believed in me. I have learned to trust that hand – trust the universe, really – and have become familiar with the feeling I get in my body, as if I am being gently guided in one direction or another by something that cares very much for my welfare. It has worked too many times for me to doubt its reality.
Years ago, when Herb and I and our kids were leaving for home after our yearlong sojourn in India, I had to say a tearful goodbye to my flute teacher, GS Sachdev. We were both in our late twenties, had bonded as friends – as family, really – and sorry to be ending our studies together.
“Can you help me to come perform in America?” he asked on that last night. “My family is forcing me to join the family business as an accountant,” he explained with a grimace, “but if I do not play music I will die!” (We were well matched for high drama…) I promised to try, even knowing the impossibility of what he was asking me to do. I was a busy young mother, knew nobody in the music business and had some idea of what the competition was like in my country. Indeed, for well over a year I felt guilty for not even trying to come through for him.
Then one morning I awoke knowing it was time to try, so I phoned the local public radio station, told them I had a reel-to-reel tape of a North Indian bass flutist, and could they put it on the air?
“Oh my God!” was the reply. “Our 11 o’clock show never came in and we’ve been racing around trying to find a replacement! Can you come right down to the Studio?”
So I did. I was asked to introduce him to the radio audience, mention that he was looking for a way to perform in America, tell them my phone number – and then they rolled the tape.
It turned out that the night before, at a Board meeting of the Ali Akbar College of Music, one member was charged with the task of looking for a teacher of North Indian flute, and the next morning he happened to turn on the radio at 11 o’clock.
“I never listen to the radio at that time!” he told me later. But he phoned me in excitement, we contacted Sachdev by telegram, the arrangements were made and the deed done with simplicity in the space of one day.
Each one of us was shell-shocked for a week.
All I did was to follow some internal urge to act based on nothing but trust, and spend a few hours of my time doing so. Whether this trust was for the Universe or for myself I will never know, but several weeks later Sachdev arrived in San Francisco and we went to pick him up at the airport.
And the rest is history.
So here’s where I stand these days on the dire subjects we are all facing: environmental disaster; political hysteria; insane wars; racism; economy out of control…
I categorically refuse to be swamped by despair, horrific and terrifying as the situation is. Even if the worst comes to the worst, right this minute I am alive and I will not throw away one moment of life if I can help it! I want every second of intense feelings, whether they are the profound sorrows of loss or the creative ecstasies of love. I want to know the tangy smell of a freshly sliced lemon, and the droplet of dew on a fig leaf at dawn. I want to see delight on the face of a friend when I enter the room, and know intimately the pangs of sorrow we are all facing together.
One of these days I will die, but today I am alive and I will live it!
Actually, that is how I know not to panic – the fact that I will soon be dying. We all will, every last one of us, no exceptions, and we are programmed to do so. Our towns and cities will do so as well, and every one of our friends and relatives, wherever they live. Our cultures will change and the seas will engulf the lands, and the ice sheets will cover the planet, as they have many times before, and whole civilizations will disappear from the face of the earth until the cycle shifts yet again.
If you believe that there is a part of us that continues on even after our bodies die, then there is no reason to panic. I am one of those believers, as it happens, having learned to be after sitting at bedside after bedside of dying friends, and being witness to the effulgent joy on their faces as each one passed. They showed me, in their last-moment seeing, what all the ancient traditions confirm – that there is more to this world than we have been taught, and death is simply the next transition.
So we can relax our fear of dropping invisibly off the edge of the world, for there is no such thing.
What is happening to us and our world is not a new phenomenon, and there is nowhere to go but here – a rather larger and more-dimensioned ‘Here’ than we think – so we might as well face the reality and relax. Eat, drink and be merry…who was it who said that? Well, I agree.
My body, as I age and watch it gradually break down, is my compass these days. Breakdown comes with the territory of aging and nobody is exempt from the process, whether we are people or we are whole civilizations.
In fact, keeping up our spirits is crucial if we are to do the work of healing and remediation in all the ways that can help people through this hard time. If we are broken, we are incapable of being in the trenches for peace and justice.
And we were born to do this work.
The fact is that ultimately we are safe, no matter what dangers we are facing at this moment in time, dire as they are. The world is doing what worlds do, and we’re on the boat pitching in stormy seas – and not for the first time in the earth’s history. This has happened before, more than once.
Learn to balance! Hang onto the rails!
And hang on to one another, no matter what.