A young woman I’ve never met stands behind the counter at a pharmacy in a small town in South Carolina. She says with a smile, “Oh, I believe dreams can come true. All I have 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 has an eerie look, not like a major city at all. I see virtually no lights, even though the hour, 10 PM, is not late. The entire city appears blanketed in what I take to be fog, but soon learn is pollution. I feel a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I have a visa that will allow me to spend one year in this ancient and holy land.
My older son is with me, a gift from me, a reward for finally earning his undergraduate degree. Letting go of his vision of sunbathing on the French Riviera, he had chosen to accompany his mother to a country known for its richness of Spirit and poverty of the flesh. He will return to the USA after one month. I will stay.
My initial conscious thought that seemed to come out of nowhere, but which I recognized as an expression of a very deep need in me, was to go to India, in search of the community of Tibetan nuns. These were women who had walked for two years, enduring unimaginable hardships, on a journey of thousands of miles from Tibet to India. They had left family and homeland, to be with their spiritual teacher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I hoped to be allowed to live with these extraordinary women, these role models of commitment, strength and deep spiritual aspiration and to learn from them.
It was January 1996, and I was on a spiritual quest that would surpass my wildest dreams.
My second son who, several years earlier, had spend some months traveling in India 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 have a reason to fly into Calcutta. I want to see first hand the Mother Teresa hospitals. I’ve read about her and her work for years and am attracted to her volunteer programs. I’m particularly interested in the Hospital for the Sick and Dying and the Children’s Hospital. Something is 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 airport hotel, we hire a car and driver to take us into the city. The scene is right out of a Hollywood film. For two hours, during which we are pretty much speechless, our car creeps through filthy streets clogged with petrol fumes, man and beast. Pedestrians, ox-drawn carts, and tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled gasoline-powered taxis, compete for the right-of-way. Bicycle rickshaws ridden by bone-thin, barefooted men in dirty white loincloths weave their way through the crowd, their passengers holding scarves to nose and mouth. Goats and chickens, and, of course, the famous sacred cow meander at will, all part of the teeming melee. The sights, the smells and the noise are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We keep our windows rolled up, even though the sun is already broiling hot.
This is my introduction to Calcutta, a city that appears to be from another age. I had understood from friends and colleagues who’ve worked there, that there are parts of the city that are quite beautiful. I didn’t see these areas. Actually, 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 the first time in my life, I am embarking on a journey on which I will not try to control what happens. I want no tour guides, no one to take me here or show me that. Though I couldn’t express it at the time, this is 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 cross an overpass, we have a view of an entire city made of cardboard and bits and pieces of debris. Later, as our car idles, stuck in traffic under an overhead train track, I glance out my window. Directly beside our rear tire, only inches from the street clogged with vehicles, sits a woman in a cardboard box just big enough for her body. She sits 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 am about as far from Forest Lake Country Club as I can be.
The hotel had suggested that if we wanted to visit Mother Teresa’s projects, we should go first to the “Mother House” (Administration). We do, and are given directions to the two hospitals, as well as the names of the nun in charge at each. I’m told that to return as a volunteer will not be a problem, however, “don’t come during the rainy season when conditions in the city are “difficult.” I wonder if living in this city is ever easy.
We choose to first visit the Hospital for the Sick and Dying. I’m struck by the simplicity of the place, and the relative quiet. We see no volunteers. There are rows of narrow beds, some occupied with patients, but of more interest to me are those who are sitting in the outside courtyard. These men and women of various ages appear to be mentally challenged. I have the thought that I could work with them. My own childhood had included playing with my 30-year-old mentally and physically disabled aunt. As I had learned my alphabet, I had tried to teach her. When I was six, I was her teacher, and in ways I could not then understand, she was mine.
The children’s hospital is next on our list. I’m not at all attracted to this work, though many obviously are. Several foreign women are rocking babies and cleaning toddlers. We leave rather quickly, having seen enough for one day. I’m ready to find a quiet place to have a late lunch and write in my journal. This is the first day, and I’ve already had more than enough experiences to process, or so I think.
I am about to experience the most intensely concentrated and inspiring moments of my life.
How to explain or understand the phenomenon of having a dream suddenly and quite unexpectedly come true, especially one so big, that I never thought it could ever be more than a dream? Of course,I had some ideas about how I wanted this time in India to go; however, I had no expectations. I was feeling very much like an ordinary little girl from an ordinary 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 is taking us to a restaurant in a quiet part of the city, my son and I chat on the back seat, sharing our thoughts of what we’ve seen and done since landing in this strange and fascinating place.
Suddenly, the driver very calmly announces, “There is Mother Teresa coming out of that house.” I look. I see the familiar white and blue robe. I actually yell, “Stop the car!”
I am running, though, later, I will have no recollection of crossing the street. She must physically felt our energy, as we rush up to her. She’s about to get into a car. I’m aware of one other nun and a driver. A few children stand nearby, watching.
For the first time in my life, I go down on my knees, my hands folded in front of my heart. She immediately puts out her right hand, pressing her palm against my forehead and then that of my son, saying, “God bless you.”
I am crying. I can’t move. My whole being is concentrated on her. I feel enveloped by the pure love I see in her eyes, the eyes of Jesus, full of goodness and tenderness.
Unmoving, held fast by her gaze, or perhaps she is held by mine, I continue to cry, as I repeat over and over, Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa.
Seeing the depth of my devotion, she reaches out, taking my right hand in hers, so large and strong. With a gentle smile and a penetrating look, she squeezes it. Then, she turns toward her car, and I am able to stand and back away.
I see that our taxi has parked beside us. I join my son on the back seat, and we both burst into tears. We’ve been in India approximately seventeen hours.
Six months earlier, before I had a conscious thought of going 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 of the plane, thinking hard about her and her amazing embodiment of True Love. How could one woman contribute so much?
I turned to my husband and asked, “If you could meet anyone in the world, who would you choose?” With a small sigh, he closed the thriller he was reading, turned to me, 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’re in that realm, my answer is the Dalai Lama.”
Within the following year, I will meet them both.