Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ben+Bianca's Play

I mentioned my friends Ben and Bianca a while back.

Here's the website for their current production. If you're in or near LA, check it out.

What Yotam Can't Eat

So, I said a couple months ago that I didn't want to pay much attention to my losing weight at the ashram. Since then I stopped losing weight and started paying attention.

For the last month, I've been on a pretty strict diet. I've found it's easier to resist temptation if I take a picture of foods I can't eat.

Bon Appetit!

I can't remember what this is, actually. It looks really gross, but it must have been tempting at the time.

Easter supper. This was still Passover, so I couldn't have eaten most of this anyway.

Matzah, on the other hand, was forbidden only to me. The bananas, too.


These were the worst. Fresh. Juicy. I had to wash and stem them all.

Two of my nieces. I just want to eat them up! (har har har)

I haven't stepped on a scale in a while, but I can see the difference in the mirror every morning. Go Team Yotam!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kali Ma Ki Jai!

On Sundays sometimes, here, I help out in the garden. My job at the moment is to gather bamboo so one of the swamis can build frames for tomato vines. It's good, sweaty work, first cutting the stalks with some big ole clippers, then hacking off the branches with a machete. It's fun, in a safe and productive setting like that, to get to destroy something.

Ma identifies and associates herself with Mother Kali, a Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Kali often appears with a sword in one hand, the severed head of some innocent in another, and blood dripping from her mouth. She's an image to give children nightmares. In proper paradoxical form, she's also adored and beloved as the sweetest, warmest, gentlest goddess of the pantheon. Kali destroys so that new life can begin. To love Kali is to let her kill your ego and nurture your soul.

I'd like to say that two weeks ago, as I hacked away at bamboo, I was thinking about the Kali appropriateness of destroying one thing to build another. The spiritual depth of what I was doing could have been fascinating. Instead, I grunted and sweated and circled the same mental drains I always do.

It's an odd rule of this place that whenever I leave my phone at home, Swami Rudra Das tries to call me, and that morning was no exception. He managed to find me among the bamboo wreckage, though, and told me that he and Yeshoda (Ma's personal aide, kinda) and half a dozen other people had been looking for me.

I'm gonna try to tell this part without names, but there is a woman in the community here whose mother was dying. The mother was an observant Jew, and she'd come to stay at her daughter's house for her last remaining months, but she didn't have a rabbi or Jewish community here. It looked like today was the day, the mother was dying, and they needed someone to come and say the end-of-life prayers with her. Without a rabbi in town, I was being recruited instead.

I called my father and we talked about how to do this, what I should say, what the dying mother should say. I took a shower, and put on something rabbinical looking. My father emailed me some prayers to read, but I couldn't get to a printer, then realized I had the same texts in a book here already. I found, then lost, then found again my yarmulke. With everything ready, and one foot out the door, I stopped at my computer for a game of solitaire. I knew I shouldn't, and I didn't really enjoy it, but I just couldn't leave yet. It took me a little over an hour to get from the bamboo grove to the house.

They tell me I knocked on the door just a moment after the mother took her last breath. Her eyes were still open, her body was warm, and you could feel her presence in the room still. But she didn't blink, or breathe, or speak. I held the dead woman's hand and read the Shema, the central affirmation of Jewish faith, on the her behalf. Her husband was there, the community member's father, and I had him read the Hareini Mochel, a prayer to forgive and be forgiven. We sat in silence around the empty body, and I silently encouraged the spirit to gather herself together, release this world, and be welcomed into the next.

After a while, it felt like she really had gone away. I went into the other room, and ended up sitting with the husband/father for a while. He was in his nineties, and also in poor health, and he seemed kind of stunned by his wife finally passing away. We talked a little about their marriage, and his time in the army, and the difficulties of growing older. I blessed him for good health and long life. I apologized for arriving too late, and they told me it was just right. In time, a nurse came to fill out a death certificate, the family thanked me for coming, and I left.

People have told me since then what a great job I did, and how grateful the family was that I could come. I'm glad to hear this, and I'm glad to have helped. At the time, though it didn't really feel like I did much at all. I didn't have anything especially wise or comforting to say, I didn't stay very long, no one cried on my shoulder. But my father had said to just be present, trust my heart, and focus on escorting the mother to the next world, which I more or less succeeded at.

Back in my car I felt exhausted. In the house I had really felt myself in the rabbi role, but back outside I was just some shocked, inexperienced kid again. I drove home and watched TV and played solitaire for four hours. I got up and finished stripping the bamboo, then went right back to watching TV. Finally, around 9 or so at night, I managed to look directly at what had happened. My first dead body. My first (pre-)rabbinic housecall. My father told me a visit like that makes you confront your own mortality, and I supposed that's just what was going on.

I wrote in my journal for a bit. "She's in a better place now," or "she lived a long life and died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones" or "I never even met this woman, why do I care?" didn't help me much. These are all ways of ignoring the fact of death, no more authentic than TV and solitaire.

I could feel death inside me that night. I could feel my whole body slowly dying, way up the same road leading to open eyes and a warm body, but no breath. I could let it weigh me down, and just wait for the inevitable, or I could embrace it as the nature of life, that life is dying, and let the death I felt inside me push me onward and upward to more living. Kali Ma Ki Jai, I thought. Mother Kali to Victory! I even maintained that state for about two-and-a-half minutes, feeling life and death coursing and swirling together inside me, then I curled up in a ball again and went to sleep.

I'll be doing more of this in a decade or so, once I'm a rabbi. A whole lot of Baby Boomers are going to die over the course of my professional life. In a way, I'm relieved that I missed the actual moment of dying, as I don't know if I'd have handled that as well - it's tempting to see a divine hand in the accidents, delays, and solitaire that got me to the house just minutes afterward - but I'll have to deal with that, too. Death is going to be a sizable part of my life. Writing this now I remind myself, Kali Ma Ki Jai, and I'm grateful to Mother Kali for using me well, and meeting me early. In school, when I study the preparation for death, and the ceremony of funerals, and grief counseling, I'll think of that weekend. I'll try to embody that feeling of life and death intermixed and interdependent. I'll try to look my own mortality in the eye and keep living. But it sucks, man. We're all born, and we all do our darnedest, and when the time comes, our bodies just crumble. This is how Mother Kali loves us, and we do our best to love her back. I'll try, but it might be a while before that's not hard for me.

Sri Kali Ma Ki Jai!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Loving Ma

One of the real joys being here has been learning to love Ma.

My father is my model for spiritual teachers, and I'm used to seeing the teacher in sweatpants. There's an earthy advantage to that, and I hope it will keep me more modest when I'm a spiritual teacher someday, but Ma does not wear sweatpants. Ma does not burp, or drip mustard on her shirt, or use up all the toilet paper. Ma barely has a pulse. We see her in person three times a week, but Ma's photograph is all over the Ashram. When bad weather forecasts prove incorrect, people living here say "Thank Ma." Ma is perfect, Ma is holy, Ma is the Goddess herself. Ma doesn't have a spiritual connection, Ma is a spiritual connection. That's a different approach, to say the least.

I resisted it at first. In my pride, and my egalitarianism, I mistook Ma for a human being. I'm sure she still is on her medical forms and her tax return, but there's never any reason to try to engage Ma as a person. If you have business with her, it's as a Guru, and a Guru is more than human. Once I understood that, I felt a tremendous liberation. When in life do you get to love someone so thoroughly? So unconditionally? Without caveats, flaws, or boundaries? Even as I write this, I have to pause to say "Thank you, Ma. Thank you, Ma, for allowing me to know you and love you. Thank you for teaching me love." It's a wonderful, beautiful, totally culty thing. 

Loving Ma so thoroughly opens me up to Ma's love. I believe and feel that God loved me, but I can't often face and savor that love. It has rescued me in times of sorrow and guided me in confusion, but my heart never felt big enough to really carry that love. Loving Ma, Loving God through Ma, I've stopped trying to carry anything. Ma's love is right there for me when I need it. It carries me. Love flows around me and through me, so I don't need to keep it to keep having it. Loving Ma, I just float in her love, let it warm my soul.

Sound cultish? It totally is. And it would all fall apart if Ma ever abused the privilege. But she never does. Ma rarely gives unsolicited, unambiguous directions, and when she does it's possible to refuse them. All she wants from us is to love ourselves and serve humanity. Looking at the lives of people who live here, who have devoted themselves to her for 3, or 5, or 35 years, these are healthy, happy, responsible people. I've known crazies, and these folks are not crazy. At worst, they might be too content for my tastes, but that's far from damning.

So I love Ma. I thank Ma for loving me. I feel a little more at home in the Universe and ready to face my own problems, and I know that, when it's down to the shit, a Goddess has my back. Thank Ma.

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

I also suspect that, on some unspeakable level, it's all a game. As part of the theater of this place, Ma the Human talks about God the Mother in the first person. Instead of an abstract, unknowable force in the universe, we get to love Mama God right in front of us. A Goddess really does have my back - whether that's Ma or something less physical doesn't matter so much. And Ma plays the role well, dispensing real love and wisdom without breaking character. Her every action makes it clear that she is here to serve us, and she serves by embodying/role-playing God. I can wink at you from on-stage like I'm doing now, but no one ever really breaks character, do they? We dodge the question of how much is Truth and how much is Theater, since it wouldn't change anything anyway, to just relax and keep on loving. Shhhhhhhh.