Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Two phone calls with my mother

One of my most precious memories of my mother is one, strangely enough, where we were thousands of kilometers apart. We did not even get to exchange conversation. Yet all the same, I felt a powerful connection to her as we shared a special moment in time. It was the evening of December 31, 1999. I was in a large room functioning as the sleeping quarters, kitchen and general living area for two monks. It led into a temple in the Songzanlin Monastery, nestled at the foot of hills overlooking Zhongdian, Yunnan, China. Having just arrived an hour or two before, my hosts were as curious about me as I was about them. They stood looking at me in their robes with attentive smiles as I called my mother to greet her on the new millennium using a cellphone. I looked back at them joyously as I left a message enthusiastically telling her where I was and who I was with.

My mother, Jennifer Lynch
My mother, Jennifer Lynch

The two monks could not understand the details of much, if anything, of what I was saying. One of them spoke a little English, enough to say "come, sit down" and to welcome me to stay the night with them. In the next few days I discovered he had learned English while walking for three months from Nepal to Dharamsala in India. He would have caught the bus but he had run out of money after catching a bus from Yunnan into Tibet, and then from Tibet into Nepal.

Temple, Songzanlin Monastery

A few days later I received a happy email from my mother telling me about her new millennium experience on a beach in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the surprise and delight she felt surge through her when she listened to the unexpected phone message.

I put in hours and hours of meditation in the ten days I spent at the monastery. I remember going onto the roof of the temple building and gazing up into the stars in the dark of night, thinking that in our deepest consciousness we can outlive even the stars. I remember my host explaining the Chinese occupation of Tibet with simple yet remarkably vivid language: "China sit in Tibet, very bad". I remember him not letting me sweep clean the months and perhaps years of accumulated dirt in the room above the temple. I remember the room we slept in being so cold at night that water would freeze. Then there was the yak butter tea that tasted nothing like tea, but rather just as you would expect a mix of regular butter and hot water to taste. But most of all I remember leaving my mother a happy and hopeful message on the night I arrived.

A few years later my mother became a Buddhist in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Her new practice and faith was a great help to her as she struggled first with cancer, and then with her impending death. Within fifteen minutes of her passing away in the Mary Potter hospice in Wellington New Zealand on March 29 2006, I made another phone call. This time it was to Lama Karma Samten Gyatso, a Tibetan monk staying in Dharamsala. He performed an "ejection of consciousness" ritual by chanting over the telephone. When the ritual was completed he asked me to locate the crown of her head. When I had done so, he then asked me to grip some of her hair and pull it out. I remember thinking "but it will hurt!" before realizing that it no longer made a difference. Lama Samten informed me that the hair was to be used in a fire ritual to be held later that year in Dharamsala.

ejection of consciousness ritual
Ejection of consciousness ritual

Two phone calls across the world thus connected three Tibetan monks and a mother and son in the great mystery we know as life. There was a connection between those calls. They were not isolated events. They circle both my mother's life and my own.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Thank God and Greyhound

For the last couple of days I've been visiting my beautiful Tajik classmate Zamira in St Paul and its been great. After a good catch-up after a long time, Zamira and I went to the science museum to see a lot of dead Germans in an exhibition called Body World ("more than 200 real human specimens"), and took some pictures in a park in the freezing cold.


On the bus ride here, while motoring past the beautiful fields of rural Wisconsin, I was able to get through almost all of King Leopold's Ghost -- an amazing and tragic tale of the Belgian colonization of the Congo. Life is funny like that isn't it? In our hearts and minds we are in two (or more) continents at once, each just as real as the other.

A couple of guys in America once came up with the country and western song Thank God and Greyhound (She's Gone). One of the guys was from Indiana -- a neat kind of thought to have when riding on a Greyhound bus from Indiana, through Illinois and Wisconsin, and onto Minneapolis St Paul.

Thank God and Greyhound, you're gone
That load on my mind got lighter when you got on
That shiny old bus is a beautiful sight
With the black smoke a-rollin' up around the tail light
It may sound kinda cruel but I've been silent too long
Thank God and Greyhound, you're gone.

Where did she go, the woman of this song? Did she come to the rolling rural land of Wisconsin, where barns nestle up against groves of trees, basking in the late light of the day, fields of golden corn shimmering resplendently? Did she see family homes with devoted parents and content children, or homes with men who beat their women and children? Did she see the fading glory of the fall trees, green, yellow, orange and red? The endless stream of hotels? Did she smell the tawdry odors emanating from the McDonalds found everywhere, especially at Greyhound rest stops? Did she ride on a bus full of white college age students, like this one, or dominated by lower class blacks and whites, like the previous one headed into Chicago?

And what of the man who inspired the song? Did he love the woman? Were they lovers? Probably. Did he regard female orgasms as an expression of biological anarchy? Probably not. Did she think he was hick? Maybe.

What a vast and steamy metropolis America is, gleaming, rural, voluptuous, more compelling than it is forgettable.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sprinting to God

Two rows of men were neatly lined up for prayer in the Al Noor Mosque in South Bend tonight. As is the custom, the women were partitioned off in another side of the prayer hall. The men, old and young, were close to one another as they submitted themselves to God. One father had his young boy with him, an enthusiastic little fellow who took great delight in sprinting joyously across the prayer carpets and up and down the stairs while the elders were solemnly praying. His magnificent smile and sparkling eyes rippled across the room as he positively galloped back and forth. Occasionally he made room for himself in the tiny gap between his father and another man, boldly squeezing in his small body, forcing the men to shuffle sideways. His head barely came up to their waists, but he knew how to pray and his lithe body made the older men's bowing and kneeling seem labourious in comparison.

The little boy reminded me of a story from my Jewish friend Eliyahu McLean. When Eliyahu was a student in New York, like many other students he eagerly anticipated meetings headed by Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), a highly prominent Rabbi in the Chabad/Lubavitch branch of Chassidic Judaism. Emotions were running high among a large proportion of Schneerson's followers that any day the Rabbi would announce publicly that he was the Messiah. Many of his followers believed he was the Messiah, and he did nothing to dissuade them of this belief. Students had their pagers set to alert them when Schneerson was to appear at a meeting. When they were studying together, their pagers would all go off at the same time, and they would sprint through the streets of Brooklyn to the large meeting hall. Despite Schneerson being partially paralysed by a stroke and unable to speak, his presence was nonetheless electrifying. He never did announce his role as Messiah, and today his followers are are divided as to his status. Chabad/Lubavitch Jews who believe he was merely a normal Rabbi have a normal sized picture of him on the wall of their synagogues, whereas those who believed he was indeed the Messiah typically make do with a truly enormous portrait of Schneerson.

Believers all make their own way to God, some a little quicker than others it seems.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The boy who learned to cook

I recently made a new friend from Kenya. He knows how to cook, being taught by his mother from a young age how to not only cook, but also wash dishes and generally make himself helpful around the house. When he was a small boy, he thought nothing of this, because for him this was normal. When he became older, however, and played with other boys, he realised this was far from normal. He realised the other boys had to do none of these things. Instead, the women and girls of the house did everything. He questioned the wisdom of his mother's approach, and began to rebel. One day his mother sat him, his three brothers and two sisters down and had a talk with them. She pointed out that as there were only two girls, and four boys, it was unfair to expect the girls to do all the work for the boys. She had a valid point there, my friend had to admit. But we all know that inequity is often insufficient motivation to change people's personal behaviours, especially if it involves them doing extra work. She then asked the children if one day they might like to be married.

"Of course!", replied all the children.

She said to the boys, "What do you think of a situation where one day you come home and you are hungry. There is a lot of food in the house, but you do not know how to prepare it. Imagine some reason why your wife cannot prepare the food for you. Maybe she is not there, or maybe she is not feeling well. How would you feel that all that food was sitting there, and you could do nothing?"

The boys admitted avoiding such a situation would be a good thing.

Then came the clincher. She asked the boys if they wanted to grow up to be real men.

"Of course!", replied the boys.

"Imagine if you cannot cook," she continued. "You can see that your wife can make all kinds of demands from you. She could say 'I want this and I want that, and if you want dinner, you have to do it for me'. If you are totally dependent on her for your food, she can do that. Do you want to be controlled by her? Do you think you would be a real man if she controlled your life like that?"

My friend learned to cook and clean. His mother is a clever woman.