(India is on my mind these days, as I make the necessary arrangements for my daughter and me to go there in just a few weeks, for what will surely be an adventure. One cannot step foot in that country without encountering the most astonishing and exhilarating situations. The article below was written and published in 2009 in The Lotus News, the monthly publication of the International Women’s Club of Hanoi.)
REALIZING THE DREAM
The young woman standing behind the counter at a pharmacy in a small town in South Carolina says, in an airy sort of way, “Oh, I believe dreams come true. All I need to do is 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) speak my Truth, and 4) not be attached to a particular outcome.”
From the air, Calcutta had an eerie look, not like a major city at all. I saw virtually no lights, even though the hour, 10 PM, was not late. The entire city was blanketed in what I took to be fog, but quickly learned was pollution. I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness.
My plan was to spend nine months in this ancient and holy land. My older son was with me, a gift I had offered him, a reward for finally earning his undergraduate degree. He had returned my gift by agreeing to accompany me. He could have chosen to sunbathe on the Riviera, but here he was. He would return to the USA in a month, and I would stay.
My initial idea had been to find the Tibetan nuns. I hoped to be allowed to live with them and learn from them. It was January 1996, and I was on a spiritual quest that would surpass my wildest dreams.
My second son who had spend some months traveling in India several years earlier had said, “Mom, whatever you do, don’t begin your trip in Calcutta. It’s a hellish place.”
He was right, but I’m glad, very glad, I didn’t listen to him.
I had a reason to fly into Calcutta. I wanted to see first hand the Mother Teresa hospitals. I had read about her and her work for years and was attracted to her volunteer programs. I was particularly interested in the Hospital for the Sick and Dying and the Children’s Hospital. Something was pushing me or maybe pulling me into situations where life is real; that place, at the edge, where the line between life and death is most fragile.
After a fitful night in a grossly dirty hotel near the airport, we hired a car and driver to take us into the city. The scene was right out of a movie. For two hours, during which we spoke little, our car crept through filthy streets clogged with petrol fumes, man and beast. Pedestrians, ox-drawn carts, and Tuk-Tuks, the three-wheeled gasoline-powered taxis, competed for the right-of-way. Bicycle rickshaws pulled by bone-thin, barefooted men wove their way through the crowd, their passengers holding scarves to their noses and mouths. An occasional white Ambassador taxi like ours crept by. Goats, and, of course, the famous sacred cow meandered at will. They were all part of a teeming melee. The visual plus the smells and the noise created sensory overload in the extreme. We kept our windows rolled up, even though the sun was already broiling hot.
Calcutta is a huge, sprawling metropolis. I understand there are parts of the city that are quite beautiful. I didn’t see these areas. They were of no interest to me. Though I had been given letters of introduction to prominent people, leaders in government and commerce, I wasn’t interested in contacting them.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I was embarking on a journey on which I would not try to control what happened. I wanted no tour guides, no one to take me here or show me that. Though I couldn’t express it at the time, this was to be a journey into the practice of Mindfulness, of simply paying attention and allowing my experience to unfold.
I had read there were one million refugees from Bangladesh who were squatted in Calcutta. At one point, as we crossed an overpass, we had a view of an entire city made of cardboard and bits and pieces of debris. Later, as our car idled, stuck in traffic under an overhead train track, I glanced out my window. Directly beside our rear tire, only inches from the street clogged with vehicles, sat a woman in a cardboard box just big enough for her body. She sat up straight, her knees almost beneath her chin, smoking a cigarette and staring straight ahead, engulfed by, and seemingly oblivious to, the heat, the noise and thick fumes of gasoline.
My mother-in-law back in South Carolina had been right. I was about as far from Forest Lake Country Club as I could be.
The hotel had suggested we go first to the “Mother House” (Administration). We did, and were given directions to the two hospitals, as well as the names of the nun in charge at each. I was told that if I wanted to return to volunteer, that would not be a problem, however, September would be the rainy season, and conditions in the city would be “difficult.” I wondered if living in this city was ever easy.
We first visited the Hospital for the Sick and Dying. I was struck by the simplicity of the place, and the relative quiet. We saw no volunteers. There were many cots, some occupied with patients, but of more interest to me were those who were sitting around in the outside courtyard. These men and women of various ages appeared to be mentally challenged. I had the thought that I could work with them. My own childhood had included playing school with my 30-year-old mentally and physically disabled aunt, my mother’s youngest half-sister. We had loved each other. As I had learned my alphabet, I had tried to teach her. When I was six, I was her reading teacher, while she introduced me to I had not seen her in all the years since she had been institutionalized.
The children’s hospital was next on our list. I was not at all attracted to this work, though many obviously were. There were many volunteers in each room we visited. We left rather quickly. We had seen enough for one day. I was ready to find a quiet place to have a late lunch and write in my journal. We had been in India less than 24 hours, and I had already had more than enough experiences to process, or so I thought.
I was about to experience the most intensely inspiring moments of my life.
How do we explain or understand the phenomenon of suddenly having a dream come true, even a dream we never thought would be realized? I had some ideas about how I wanted this trip to India to go; however, I had no expectations. I was feeling very much like the little girl from a little place on the planet, not special at all.
The realization that very special things can happen to very ordinary people was right around the corner.
As our taxi was taking us to a restaurant in a quiet part of the city, my son and I chatted on the back seat, sharing our thoughts of all we had seen and done since landing in a land so foreign and so fascinating.
Suddenly, the driver very calmly announced, “There is Mother Teresa coming out of that house.” I looked, and saw the familiar white and blue robe. I think I actually yelled, “Stop the car!”
I have no recollection of crossing the street, but I know I was running. She must have physically felt our energy, as we rushed up to her. She was about to get into a car. I saw one other nun and a driver. A few children were standing nearby.
For the first time in my life, I went down on my knees, my hands folded in front of my heart. She immediately put out her right hand, pressing her palm against my forehead and then that of my son, saying, “God bless you.”
I was crying. I couldn’t move. My whole being was concentrated on her. I felt enveloped by the pure love I saw in her eyes. They were the eyes of Jesus, full of goodness and tenderness.
Unmoving, held fast by her gaze, or perhaps she was held by mine, I continued to cry, as I repeated over and over, Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa..
Seeing my need, she reached out to me, taking my right hand in her large and strong one. With a gentle smile, she gave it a squeeze. Only then, was I able to stand and back away.
When she turned, I did, too. I saw our taxi had parked beside us. I joined my son on the back seat, and we both burst into tears. We had been in India approximately seventeen hours.
Six months earlier, before I had a conscious thought about a trip to India, I had been reading a book about Mother Teresa. As my husband and I were flying from Montana to South Carolina, I stared out the window, thinking hard about her and her amazing embodiment of True Love. How could one woman contribute so much? And she was not yet finished.
I turned to my husband and asked, “If you could meet anyone in the world, whom would you choose?” With a small sigh, he closed the thriller he was reading and replied, “I don’t know. You’re the one thinking about it. Who would you choose?” I said, without hesitation, “Mother Teresa.” “Well, now” he said, “if you are in that realm, my answer is the Dalai Lama.”
Within a year, I had met them both.