I don't submit this as "writing," but as a memory for a special soul.
Please join me for this personal journey...
* * * * * *
Some weeks back, my dear friend Chandra took me to a homeless shelter here in Chicago.
It was one of those missions built from a single unbroken hall, dark and stifling from the lack of sun and ventilation, and with that cloistered feel you get from places which seem untouched by the outside world. It was terribly managed, no one in attendance; and felt terribly and inexcusably inhuman.
There were a handful residents curled on mattresses, and a woman in a sari in back. Chandra whispered: "It's her. She's the one from home..."
'Home' was Calcutta, where Chandra did service for many years. She knew this woman from her Mission...
We went to the woman. "Rani," said Chandra: "This is Mark. He's done service too..."
"Narayan namo," Rani whispered ("I bow to the divinity in you"). I returned the greeting and kissed her hand. Rani kissed mine back.
"She came here on the final trip of her life," said Chandra, "she wanted to see her sister before she passed."
"Did she see her?" I asked.
"No. Her sister died the week before she came."
"God, I'm sorry," I whispered.
"No, no" said Chandra: "She came all this way without speaking to her sister. [Whispering:] She's fine with that! The journey was for Love: She truly believes her sister knew she was here..."
Rani patted her heart as if to say, "yes..."
* * * * * *
Rani was 90, her skin a sheath of velvety gold, her hair a radiant black--it must've looked this way when she was 20--and her eyes, two bowls of fire. She was paper-thin but intensely present. Her voice was like a Mozart aria, her gestures like a dancer's, and her smile like a gleeful child's.
"May I speak with Mark alone?" Rani said.
Chandra tended to others...
"It may seem forward," said Rani, "but I feel as if I know you!"
Then, for the next 3 hours, Rani held my hand and told stories of growing up in the villages of India where you saw the cycles of life and death "coming and going like blades of grass or like the stars..." She quoted scriptures, tales, her beloved Bhagavad Gita, and many beautiful songs. I'd known many Indians who'd brought the sumptuous dance of their tradition to life, but none had done it like this: Rani spoke as one ready to pass, elated that at last she could leave this body and move to a better place, and was in bliss at entering "the eternal pageant of my people".
"My body has passed its time," she whispered: "It's time to go to new pastures. Look: I embrace it with all my soul! I'm not afraid!"
She threw out her arms and her lockets clattered like a chorus of small bells. She was poor, but her lockets were hand-carved, the pictures hand-painted, her scarves made with hand-drawn mandalas and paisleys, and there was a sense of sacredness to her attire, like this was the art of the soul where value wasn't determined by cost but by inner-radiance. She smelled of jasmine and lavender; and her arms--waving perilously because she could barely move them anymore--seemed like branches of an old oak waving in the wind.
"That's not easy," she said, lowering her arms. "I must catch my breath..."
Then--eyes closed--she told the tale from the ancient plains of India where Krishna begged the forces of the world to cease battle and recognize that we're 'all one'. She sang the famous words, "the soul is never born, nor does it die...it is birthless, eternal, imperishable, timeless..." She sang them like they were her wedding songs...
Finally, Rani said, "I want to speak with Chandra. Could you leave us?" I wished Rani safe passage, and she smiled, "I'm already where I want to be."
"Where's that?" I said.
I stood at the door while she and Rani held hands, both of them lit in the darkness like a late Rembrandt--all golds and deep reds, glowing from several sticks of incense and a beautiful old candle which had oozed its wax all over the table and floor...They spoke inaudibly, heads bobbing and foreheads rubbing, and I realized: This was a sacred moment. It was inviolable and unshakable and exquisitely private; a holy of holies between two connected souls; and I thought, 'if I never see Chandra again, this is how I'd like to remember her: connecting heart-to-heart, revering age, sharing dearly, and never once wavering from the bond of unspeakable intimacy'.
Rani died a week later in Calcutta. She was cremated on the shores of the Ganges.
Chandra wrote: "The flames were orange, and lit up the night like the sun! Oh, you should've seen it..."
I should add: To some Hindus, this is a supreme blessing. It's life transformed into pure blinding light...
* * * * * *
The following day, Chandra flew back to India.
Standing at the curb, she suddenly grabbed me and wept:
"Please don't let go," she pleaded: "Please..."
She wept uncontrollably. I hugged as intensely as I could, because I knew from her grasp that this was from her very depths, a baring of everything in her, which she wanted me to 'have', a gift of a life of holding the souls of others; that she was afraid she wouldn't be able to carry it much longer and wanted me to give it to others. It was a lifetime of seeing the depths of countless souls and being overwhelmed at the pageant of their lives; and a lifetime of witnessing that each life was greater than the sum of its parts and that each was tinged with what we used to call "the whispers of eternity"....It was her heart, so overflowing that it was gushing like a fountain, a heart that needed to break and pour itself into her closest friend, without words, without labels as if to say: "This is my life, please cherish it". Beyond that, it was her earthly life, which--unbeknownst to me--was about to end: a deep and final imparting of something inviolable and sacred. She wept so hard her whole body shook; her hands dug into my arms; and, when she finished, she spoke one other word--just one--then kissed me on my heart, and left.
I couldn't move. On crawling into a taxi, she smiled at the driver and said: "Hello, sweet soul..."
That was my friend Chandra...
* * * * * *
Weeks later, I got an email:
Your beloved Chandra died today. She died in a Himalayan village. They say it was because she couldn't get help: But we knew. She was exhausted. She died of living too many lives. She passed with 'I love you' on her lips to everyone present; and dictated this letter to you...
I cannot print the letter, but in it she said: "Remember our little agreement..."
Her one last word, while hugging me, was, "Impart!"
The yogic teachers said: Na datvyam, na datvyam, na datvyam.
It means: Do not impart, do not impart, do not impart...
Why? Share the Mysteries cautiously, they said: Never treat them like 'everyday talk'...
Why, then, did Chandra say otherwise?
To say: "Sing the mysteries to the world, friends! Gush them until they shake the oceans, let them rush from your lips like waterfalls and rivers..."
What was the agreement?
That I tell one tale every birthday that captured her love and passion. She agreed to do the same for me...
Chandra passed on August 27th this year. She was born on September 24th (yesterday). She was 59 years old: I never dreamt I'd be the one to tell the tale; and never, never, so early in her life...
In her memory, I offer this story to the Light in everyone.
May it inspire much intimacy in all of your lives, and much love...
With much peace,
Sep 25, 2008 6:36:27 amby odie Homepage »
Ahh Mark, I am crying in my coffee. So well I understand how this touches you and how very much it means to you. I also know well how while it is a beautiful piece of your heart you share it is also difficult and tiring. Much love to you as you carry on with this amazing gift, my friend. Keep the light alive.
Sep 25, 2008 6:46:13 amby tennesseecowgirl Homepage »
Mark this is a beautiful tale, and it left me in tears. And you most certainly captured her love and passion and showed us all here that Chandra was also a sweet soul.
And I hope that Rani gets here wish someday when we can ALL come to realize that we are all one.
Thanks for sharing this, and all the best.
Sep 25, 2008 7:25:34 amby magnus073 Homepage »
Mark I am fighting back the tears here at work as I try to type and am moved by this story of love and devotion. She would be so proud as you have lived up to your part of the agreement and told her tale and touched so many. My only wish is there were more Rani's, Chandra's and Mark's in the world and it would be a much better place. Thank you my friend
Sep 25, 2008 10:01:30 amby ARTWITHIN_II Homepage »
Thank you so much for sharing this blessing and Chandra. Your gift of writing is spent to impart inspiration to love and to give. I feel no sorrow, only joy that Chandra had such a blessed life that she gave away, joy that she left her spent body to enjoy still more blessings, and joy for all who were blessed by her love and touch. She continues to touch others with her love, and we are inspired to do the same. This is not just a memory, it is a living celebration of life and love.
Sep 25, 2008 10:34:54 amby kimariehere Homepage »
What a beautiful and heartfelt story which shines in memory full of your beautiful heart thank you so much for sharing this very warm and tender memorial .... it touched me deeply and i am truely moved... beautiful flower you have painted too ...life is such a beautiful gift and so short ...so good we remember those dear to our heart with thoughts words and loving care as you have here!! you writing is beautiful you have so many gifts i thank you for sharing this wonderful part of your life here!
Apr 14, 2009 8:43:26 pmby bmac62 Homepage »
Mark, I've read your memory/memorial to Chandra four times. I've considered the wonderful comments by all the folks above. This is a superbly written short story. To say it is full of heartfelt emotion is an understatement. However, my immediate reaction most closely aligns with ARTWITHIN II. I am not sad while reading your words and I am not sad at the end. You've got a wonderful story to impart and you are doing so right in keeping with your agreement.
Chandra's traditions are very different than mine but her humanity is lovely. Sounds to me like Chandra and Mother Teresa shared a common mission in India...even in the same city! There are mysteries here. But not the kind to be explained. IMHO, we are moving within the realm of faith. Everything you've written is so easy to follow...it flows without roughness. You brought us to intuitively know Rani, then Chandra using but a few powerful highlights of their lives. And you accomplished that with dialogue...not a windy narrative.
I found myself being able to use four of my five senses... The only thing missing was something to taste:) But this wasn't the time or place for a cup of tea or a biscuit was it:)
In keeping with your ending...have you inspired and imparted? Absolutely!
Thanks Mark...a lot of helpful lessons here for me. And it is far easier to say something afterward like I've just done than to sit down and write from scratch like your did on September 24th or 25th. Well done my friend!!!
Aug 15, 2009 6:42:07 pmby novelist Homepage »
This is a beautiful memorial and spiritual lesson. I often take so much for granted. People like you and Chandra do so much and ask so little in return. Your writing evoked the scene and all the emotions involved to the point of putting me there and bringing tears to my eyes. I appreciate that it's deeply honest and heartfelt and that you chose your words concisely with so many rich details. It strikes a balance technically that's not easy to achieve--especially when emotions run so deeply for the writer. I hope you publish a book one day because the world could learn from your experiences and insights. I admire you for who you are and what you do and I can tell these women felt a great bond with you, and were grateful for your presence in their lives. I feel very lucky that you were at the galleries at the same time I was at the galleries. I've already learned a great deal from you by studying your work and by reading your comments. You've been insightful, creative, and empowering to many here. I respect your positivity and your strength as I'm sure many of your followers do. Writing is so healing. Not only for the writers, but for the readers as well. Thanks for sharing this story with us.