Day 351 to Day 357 – the new path is carved

Day 351 – Judi

Just when I am ready to throw in the towel, when I don’t want to do this job anymore, when I have had more than enough… I meet Judi. She is in a retirement village; shocked at how quickly age caught up with her, but when she speaks, you can tell that her mind is still sharp as a tack. I stay longer than intended, listening to her stories of life and soaking up her sage advice as she tells me that I am charming and can succeed if I just finish my degree.

She tells me, “At age 18 I went to Paris with my bets friend and a map. I never for a moment thought I wouldn’t go. I had this indelible belief that I would be safe and that nothing bad would happen.”

I know this feeling so well. How many times this year have I made snap decisions and just believed so much in this crazy path that it led me to amazing places? How many times have I just opened my eyes and seen a sign that led me somewhere unknown? There were times I had no clue what I was doing and all I could trust was that the universe was leading me exactly where I was supposed to go. I have learnt to listen in to the whispering winds of change and act on little more than gut instinct. I have learnt to trust myself, to follow my own lead and to flow with the current of life.

When I stand up to leave, this beautiful woman who has loved and lost more than she can count, who never married or had children, but instead travelled the world and protected the young men in her care like her own, who in her 80’s refuses to be called a geriatric, grabs my wrist and stands stock still as she looks at my unicorn. I hold my breath, scared that my charms will be lost for my body art.

“I love it!” She tells me fiercely as she looks into my eyes with a cheeky smile. “Every woman needs a unicorn to chase away the dark thoughts.”

 

Day 352 – blue bottled

Today is my last day of work and how fortunate I am to have had a cancellation. It is hot and the ocean is bright turquoise. I race back for a quick costume change and I am in for a swim across Malabar. This is the greatest feeling in the world, my fingers passing through the cold water as I fall into rhythm. If I were the sun right now, staring down at this tiny moving figure, would I wonder why she does it? Or is it just known? No blue bottles in the whole beach but somehow I find the single figure that is tangled up amongst some seaweed. A piece of tentacle becomes stuck on my right middle finger and it takes a while for me to realise and pull it off. I have had enough of these to know that it is nothing. I get back home and as I change, I see myself turn pale. The pain is going up into my glands and I want to vomit. I have never had a reaction like this before. I just want to lie down. As I lie there, sleepily staring at the clock tick towards my next appointment, I think of the poor blue bottle that stung me. Usually they float around in a little group, washing into the beach, innocently bobbing around in virtual suspended animation. This little guy had been caught in some seaweed, isolated from his clan and taken far enough away that the two of us met and he blessed me with an afternoon off to rest. This may be painful but I am still grateful.

 

Day 353 – the constant gardener

Another tattoo. This has been my most active year under the inking needle. This time, I am getting a full garden piece down the back of my left calf and the outer side of my shin. The lily is already there, so it is getting coloured and connected by some green vines which curl around my ankles. The grapevines represent my work with wine, the sacred drink; the chilli is for my Mexican heritage; the lotus flower is a symbol for yoga; the bird of paradise is my mother’s favourite flower and the LIZard is me. I can’t believe it but I am nearly asleep as the tattooist colours my skin. It’s like as soon as I finished work, my body and mind has just switched off. Time to wind down. Four hours later, we have an outline of my garden and some scattered colour done. It looks amazing. Gardens are all about staying grounded and feeling connected to the earth mother, knowing where your roots come from and staying true to them.

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Day 354 – the work path

The decision has been made. I am now on holidays and I have already had two job interviews. One is for a job teaching yoga. I know that this is my true path. The other is for bar manager of a new bar opening next year. I can’t go back to selling wine. I did meet some amazing and beautiful people in that job, but I know when something isn’t quite right. I miss teaching yoga and I don’t even have the time to study, so I am re-enrolling in Uni, quitting sales, learning how to ride a motorbike (the pollution issue drives me mental, knowing I am driving around for nearly 100km per day), and going back to yoga and bar work. For the first time in months, I feel genuine relief about a decision that I have made. Now that there is no more work for the rest of the year, I can really hear my internal voice and it is once again speaking its truth about work.

 

IMG_6069Day 355 – another drum circle

It was all because of a drum circle that I found my yoga path to begin with. At the work Christmas party, I am struggling to fit in with the group. I feel a little bit sick so I go in to lie down and under the Christmas tree I find three djembes. As my work friends come in, I silently hand them a drum and we start to play. At first the sound is disjointed, but eventually someone grabs a guitar and we fall into an erratic rhythm which eventually flows into music. Singing along with a guitar and a djembe, I can remember where I come from. I know I am making the right decision in leaving this job and going back to yoga. I think I need to get myself a djembe. This beat conjures inspiration.

 

Day 356 – the long and winding road

You know a relationship is serious when you are introduced to the family. I am scared out of my whits. We drive about 9 hours up the coast to Byron Bay to spend Christmas with Matt’s family. When we pull into the driveway, I gasp, “Are we here already?”

It was not so long ago that a friend of mine had to meet her partners family and my advice to her was, ‘Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn.’

So right now I am trying to be a unicorn. I can only fall back into my own skin and hope that they see why Matt loves me. Why am I so nervous? For the past four months my job has been to walk into people’s houses with wine and win them over with personality and charm. Why should I be so nervous about this?

It’s always hard to tell but if I know one thing about myself it is that I am good at being me. I don’t really know how to be anything else. And I love me. So hopefully they do too…

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Day 357 – in the open air

Matt has been telling me about this open-air cathedral and when we pull up, I didn’t imagine it would be so beautiful. Overlooking a valley, the sandstone cross rises up in front of a cloudy sky. The pale green logs make pews under the sun and the sandstone altar immediately inspires thoughts of the Sermon on the Mount. This is how it is supposed to be. Outside, with the wind circling me, it is easy to feel the presence of god. Of all the temples, mosques, churches and sacred buildings I have prayed in this year, this has to be my favourite. I look past the cross and into the depth of the green beneath. I start to say the Lord’s prayer, but I leave off after a few lines. It means nothing to me. My most sacred moments have been in open honesty with the divine. So I find a simpler way…IMG_6098

Keep him safe.

Bless our love.

Thanks for making life so awesome.

Ok, not so sacred but sometimes that candid statement says more than the ‘thou who art…’

And I do feel blessed.

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Day 280 to Day 287 – life changers

Day 280 – crossroads of chaos

Another crossroads presents itself and I find myself at a job interview. When asked how much money I would expect I am not afraid to ask for more than I know I will be offered.

“Do you think you are old enough and experienced enough to ask for that?”

My response…

“I know my value. There is no point in telling you an amount that you will say yes to immediately and then I have sold myself short. The worst you can say is no and then give me a counter offer.”

Ultimately, this new job does not work out. Not only do they want me to cover my tattoos, but they also want me to work a lot more hours than I am working right now.

It does give me the opportunity to look at my work-life, to re-assess this career choice. I am a wine rep. I enjoy what I do, but as to whether this is a lifelong commitment, I know that it is only a temporary means to an end. I know myself. I know that this is not me. But I do know my value and I am proud of myself for having the courage to say so.

 

Day 281 – my mother’s flames

I spend the evening with my mum. I notice that she has three candles lit on the table. She has been lighting these three candles for years. She has never actually told me about it, but I once asked and she told me simply it was her three children. It is her own silent prayer for us, like a little light to keep us safe. I love that she does this. I love that she has a little ritual for us. She isn’t overtly religious or superstitious. She doesn’t meditate or spend much time wondering about god. She comes from Mexico, where old world Catholicism demands only that you have faith. For my mother, she has never questioned whether god was there. She has never wondered about what that means. She prays when she needs to and she believes. She never had to go on grand spiritual journeys to ‘find the divine’ or climb mountains to seek something deeper. Sometimes I envy her simple and unfaltering faith. I have always questioned. I have always wondered. I have always tested and probed and looked deeper. I could never accept what I was told. I had to figure it out on my own. When she saw me pray before a meal she almost cried with excitement that I had finally ‘found god’. I told her just that I was saying thank you for the meal, but that yes I had found myself and through that I guess you could say I found divine, which is within all. She looked kind of confused so I didn’t have the heart to explain that what I was actually saying was entirely in Sanskrit and used the name Brahma instead of Jesus. If there is one thing I have never associated with god, it is religion, and so for that I can be grateful to my mother. She never made me go to church. She never forced me to pray. She only asked that I never again use the term ‘older than god’ when she saw it in something I had written. I say Brahma, she says god. My aunty says Allah. My cousin says Jesus like Hey Soos. Potayto, potaahto. I light incense, she lights candles. Essentially it is all one.

 

Day 282 – the eye hospital

I wake up fine, but in the shower, I feel a sudden pain. I pull out two eyelashes from my left eye, but the pain remains. It feels like there is something in there. I remember this feeling. The last time I had this, I had a nasty eye infection from contact use and ended up in hospital for a week. I drive myself straight to the eye hospital and wait for over an hour to be told it is blepharitis. Apparently this is common and is nothing more than a swelling of the eye, in the oil gland from where the eyelashes extend. The doctor tells me to put hot compresses on my eyes and massage the eyelid. I go home and lie down with a hot towel on my eyes. I lay back with my eyes closed.

Meditation occurs.

The last time I was in hospital, I was completely blind in my left eye. I had no choice but to meditate. I had my eyes closed for nearly a week. When the eye drops went from 10 minute intervals to 2 hour intervals, I started to escape from the hospital and walk, half blind, in the botanical gardens. My favourite part was the herb garden. I would close my eyes as I wondered through, smelling the lemongrass and rosemary, running my fingers across mint and thyme. The universe will tell you when you need to stop. If we don’t listen, it demands. If we still don’t listen, it reaches down and forces our eyes shut.

Meditation is enforced.

I accept.

 

Day 283 – Missing Indonesia

I wake up suddenly missing Indonesia. I eat black rice pudding (bubur injin) in bed, under a feather down doona, listening to the rain and in all its beauty, I want to cry for that simple life of pure existential peace where the hardest part of my day was opening a coconut. I miss bubur kacang hijau for breakfast (the best way to cook mung beans in the world)… So I decide to writ eto the only other human being who understands. Zani. She is a mermaid goddess who also lived out in the islands of the Mentawais. When I read her last email I remember why we left. The pirates. We left because under the thin veneer of paradise lies dark and troubled waters. And that restless darkness can pull you down. I left because my time there was over. I am 10kg heavier in Sydney than I was in Indonesia.

I look in the mirror and I see a girl bigger in every aspect. The girl that lived there was hiding, shrinking. She was so closed in on herself that when she came back here last year, someone thought she couldn’t speak English. That was oppression. That was me hiding behind my long hair and disappearing slowly. Now I am open, I am not afraid to be heard or to be me. I guess I don’t really miss Indonesia. I can make bubur injin in my own kitchen.

 

Day 284 – letting the leopard out

It is time for a new hairstyle. I have the side shaved, it is like a semi Mohawk. Mel (The Leopard Lounge, Newtown) bleaches the side and hand paints the colours back in. I’m not sure that I could have done this a year ago. Or even six months ago. Girls with long hair often tell me I am courageous for having a Mohawk. One girl at the pub asks if I am a lesbian. I just laugh. Ok, I guess that is why it takes courage. You have to put up with some strange comments when you have a weird hairstyle. If I wanted to blend in and hide, I could have long hair. I could wear the tiny pink dress. Instead I wear a black leather jacket and have leopard fur on the side of my head. Ladies, we shouldn’t be afraid to hide our spots. Deep down, we can let the animal out. A hairstyle shouldn’t take courage. A hairstyle is just scissors and peroxide. It is transient change. It grows. Real courage is in what you do, not how you look.

 

Day 285 – ummm om?

It has been a while since I last laid my yoga mat down in a studio class. I can’t say it has the same profound epiphany-like effect that it once did a few years ago. I don’t get a jolt of mystical inspiration. It is a great technical alignment class and something that my physical space has missed, however, I feel like there is something missing from this pure asana practice. The “om” sounds more like “um?” and the word exercise finds its way into the room. Is that why I am here? To exercise? I think I go to boot camp three times a week for that. Well, why am I here? I knew what this class would be about, so I can’t act surprised about this. If I wanted a spiritual, meditative experience, I could have stayed at home and done a private practice. I know I am here because my body needs me to be. So, is it sometimes necessary to let go of the spiritual experience in order to allow the life experience? Does yoga always have to be deeply moving and life-changing, or is it just another baby step?

 

Day 286 – the life-changing fairy

As per usual, at a fourth birthday party, I can be found sorting through the costumes. When my niece ends up entirely soaked from the bubble machine I take the opportunity to dress her in the Christmas fairy outfit. She is a tiny, magical little being, prancing around searching for one of the five varieties of cake on offer. Another fairy princess has been playing with the black Play-Doh and brings a mysterious lump over, “Look! I made a sea rock!”

Creative.

Watching my sister and her daughter play in the grass, I can actually feel the bond between them. My sister was born to be a mum and though I don’t know if it is a bond I will ever get to feel, at least now I get it. It’s funny that a yoga class can’t make the same profound life-changing realisation occur, but a little green and red fairy rolling around on the grass, can.

Day 142 – the wisdom of children

My mum and I are driving down to my brother’s place on the south coast. Before we leave I have time to practice and even go for a run. It is one of those beautiful crisp autumn mornings where the sun is warm and the air is fresh. Magpies are crying to the morning and the grass is glistening with dew. As I breathe and run, I feel balanced and ready to be in Sydney again. The 2:1 exhale to inhale breathing rhythm is now such a habit, this feels like the deepest breaths I will take all day.

Driving down, most of the highway is surrounded by bush land. The dry scrub stretches out to my left and beyond that I can see the deep blue pacific ocean in the distance. The familiar smell of eucalyptus, melaleuca and lemon myrtle get stronger the further south we go. This far away from the city, the air feels clearer and colder. As the sun sets I can hear the kookaburras laughing across the sky and the sun is setting as early as 5.30pm. The days are already shorter as winter approaches. Getting up at 4am to practice was great in the Indian summer but here I can’t say it will be so easy. But the sounds and smells of Australian dawn make it all worth it to at least set my alarm for 6am.

When I arrive at my brother’s door I can hear the kids screaming my name as they run to greet me. When we sit down for dinner they both want to sit next to me “because I love Tia!” It utterly melts me.

As I do my morning meditation in front of the fire I can hear my niece, Miss 6 and nephew, Mister 3, upstairs. They run to the banister to look down where I am sitting and I hear them as grandma what Tia (Aunty) is doing. I am standing doing bhastrika when Mr Cat (that is the name of their hairless devon rex) starts pawing at my legs for attention. I pick up his thin body and he crawls across my neck to purr loudly while I do agnisara. When I sit down to pray before breakfast, the kids ask again what I’m doing and my mother, fearing a metaphysical response, she interrupts my answer to say that “Tia is just saying thank you to god for the food.” Ever the pragmatist, my mum. (I will find her later in the garage yelling, “Look at me!” as she spins around with a hula hoop while I try to explain to my nephew why his toy cars would be better for the planet if they were diesel-fuelled).

My nephew keeps telling me that I need to keep growing my hair and not cut it or else “you will look like me and daddy and not like a girl.” Grateful for his style tips, it seems pointless to tell him that girls can have short hair too, or that all the kids in India get their heads shaved at their age. Social conditioning has already set strict guidelines for feminine and masculine attributes and he hasn’t yet turned 4.

In four months since I saw them last, they have both grown centimetres in height and maturity. My nephew is entering the stage of pedantic parent-terrorist and my niece is old enough now to offer him counselling for his tantrums. She is a talented artist and reading far beyond her level. When she asks what I looked like when I was little, I tell her, “well, I kind of looked like you.” Which she seems to like. She has a blue-skinned doll that is a zombie, though she doesn’t know what that is. She has a chronic fear of skeletons and all things to do with death so it’s strange that she likes this doll. Looking at its blue hair, red lips and detachable limbs (Leprosy Barbie?), I notice it must be a Vata because of its hyper-flexible joints. It has serious lumbar lordosis and the wrists are bent at an unnatural angle. But still, it seems like a better image to aspire to than the traditional blonde Barbie.

Doing yoga with my niece, she likes the balancing poses. She is already super flexible and does gymnastics so she is getting strong. When we finish and put out hands together I invite her to say a prayer and she says, “um… Thank you god… For a life!” The simplest and most honest prayers really are the best.

When I look into these kids’ adoring eyes, I wonder why I would ever need love from another human being. These children have pure, unconditional and unquestioning love for me. Sure, by the time they are 15 they might feel differently, but I’m working really hard on the “cool aunt” image. And all that matters is now and they love me now.

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Day 141- a bumpy landing

I’m so excited to be home, I almost run through customs. When I race to hug my mum she has tears in her eyes but suddenly four months dissolves into moments and it is like I’ve never been away.

My first stop is my favourite cafe for a soy mocha and raisin toast. It is a sunny autumn morning and the ocean is a rich blue surrounded by the sandstone cliffs of Malabar. I had forgotten how beautiful it is to be beside the ocean. Coffee tastes amazing- if there is one thing that Australians have mastered is the espresso machine. Toby’s Estate coffee beans have me in sensorial bliss. But the highlight of home is the shower. I’ve been showering out of a bucket for longer than I can remember and the luxury of running hot water was a rarity I learnt not to expect but I am now more aware of how much water a shower wastes. Actually it’s just under 10 litres per minute. So even with my four minute sand timer that I use religiously I am still spending 40 litres of water. In India I could shower with half a bucketful, maybe 10 litres total. I get out and look at my array of skin care. I have a bit of an addiction when it comes to skin products and airport shopping has attacked my credit card. I carefully apply toners and eye creams and lotions and all the other recommended products I would have read about in Vogue. Have I already become a slave to marketing? Is the consumer culture already brain washing me again? I just spent two months washing my hair with a bar of soap. It worked fine before… One outrageously expensive new haircut later and I guess my membership to the consumerist slave movement has been confirmed. Why is it considered impolite to tell a customer how much foils cost until after its all done? I know it can be awkward to make the assumption that I can’t afford it but right now I actually can’t!

Due to the 4 and a half hour time jump I missed out on sleep so I feel hungover even though I didn’t drink on the plane. I wonder around the shopping centre with my friend and mum and in my dazed state I forget what I’m looking for and end up going home with a new jacket. I feel annoyed and disappointed with myself for spending money needlessly. It isn’t that I don’t like my hair or my jacket. It’s just knowing how far that money could go in India… How many lunches it could buy for street children, how many beds for a child in need. With all the money I spent today I could send a girl from Ladli to college for a year
Dinner is my favourite- mum’s vegetable soup. I stop to pray before eating, something I’ve been doing since the Gedong Gandhi ashram in Bali. For the first time today, I feel connected to the higher self. Coming home has been a shock, I almost felt lost and a little homesick surrounded by this consumer culture, but this is all it takes to come back to self, back to true home. I don’t need to be in India, I don’t need to be anywhere on the outside. I just need to turn inwards and in stillness and silence find the cave of the heart where the holy river of life flows and the internal fire crackles and burns.

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Day 138 – Ajmer and Pushkar

Rupali and her sister, Megha, had let me sleep in their air conditioned room last night as it was too hot in mine. It is mid-morning and already sweltering as I practice in my bikram-like room. I’m halfway through systematic relaxation when Rupali knocks at my door. We are going to Ajmer. I have an hour to get ready. I eat some fruit, silently praying for this banana to fulfil me entirely so that I can fast for the rest of the day.

There is a famous mosque at Ajmer, which is about 2.5 hours away. Apparently if you pray at this mosque, your prayers will be answered. Whilst I don’t believe in spiritual guarantees like this or plenary indulgence, it has sparked my interest and by 1pm we are driving out of Jaipur and through desert-like country.

As we approach the town, it is decided that we will go to Pushkar first, which is another half an hour past Ajmer. Pushkar is famous for having the one and only Brahma temple in the world. Brahma, the creator of the universe, the key divine being who first chanted the sacred syllable OM, once sat on the banks of the Pushkar lake and meditated for 1000years. Here he sent his son Narad to fetch his wife so that they could perform the ritual puja together. Mischievous Narad, however, made sure that his mother turned up late. Brahma grew impatient and instead asked another woman to join in his meditation. Although, I wonder if this is a euphemism for something else, because when Brahma’s wife finally turned up, she was so angry that she put a curse on him in which no more than one temple would ever be erected in his honour.

As we make our way through the main market, we head first to the lake and the small Shiva temple here. There are stone bathing pools surrounding the lake, which is said to be certain death as it is so deep. Men in loincloths, women in colourful saris and children in shorts are all bathing and standing about in the water. We buy the small basket of flowers and take it to a Pandit, who performs the puja for happiness. This puja is said to remove the karma of past lives and of our families. Rup and I each sit down on the cool marble steps leading to a pool that is filled with floating flowers. I clean my hands with the holy water, dabbing my eyes, ears, head and heart and then the pandit leads me through the Sanskrit prayers. He asks my name and gets excited when I say Elizabeth as there is a ghat named after Queen Elizabeth II; “That one there with all the cows on it!” I pray over the flowers, throw one over my shoulder to get rid of the past karma of my family and then he drapes the strands of maroon and yellow thread over my head. He hands me the coconut and packet of sugar balls as he tries to gently coerce me into donating a substantial amount more than I have and I tell him again and again that no, I don’t have that much, not even in Australian currency. I’m still holding the coconut when he finally concedes and with a forgiving smile ties the thread around my right wrist. He tells me I am free to sit and look at the view. I ask about Brahma meditating here and he says that actually all the gods have come to this lake at some point in time and that the mountains surrounding this lake resonate with the energy to answer all prayers. When I leave he tells me that he hopes I will return with my husband one day.

Next we visit the Brahma temple. There are many marble steps so with her broken foot, Rup decides to sit down in a jewellery shop. Walking barefoot up the red carpet, i notice a Sadhu sitting beside a small red Hanuman temple playing the high pitched flute I once associated with snake charmers. But this man is playing only out of devotion. His eyes are closed in blissful ecstasy as he offers his musical prayer. In the centre, behind a small gate surrounding the stone effigy of Brahma, a pandit stands handing out small parcels of sugar sweets for offerings as he talks on his mobile phone that he has pressed between his ear and shoulder. Devotees ring the huge brass bell, waking up god so that he can hear their prayers. I watch as people bend down to touch the floor and then their hearts, then join my own hands in prayer and chant the only prayer I know with Brahma’s name in it. It has been many days since I was in a temple and once again, I feel the energetic resonance that comes from praying in a holy place. When I am done I move to the side where a painting depicts the many headed, white bearded Brahma with the “other woman” as his wife looks on. In the lower half of the picture Narad, Ganesha, Shiva and other gods stand as though approaching a circle of Sadhu’s around a transparent fire. It is a beautiful and powerful image that reminds me of a Diego Rivera mural in the story it depicts. On the way out I notice two small shrines in marble, one for Lord Indra, who rules over heaven and Lord Kuber, who is apparently the lord of riches.

By the time we enter Ajmer again the sun is setting and clouds are gathering. A rickshaw has to take us toward the centre of the town where the mosque lies but he asks far too much so in a huff of refusal, Rupali limps away as though to walk there herself. She shouts back over her shoulder in Hindi and I understand only the word “shortcut”. Knowing she is probably in pain already from her awkward hobble, I run to help her and finally the rickshaw circles back and agrees on a much more reasonable price. As he drives us through the narrow alleys barely wider than the vehicle we are in, a gentle sprinkle darkens the stone ground. By the time he parks and hands us over to the guide to walk barefoot the rest of the way, it is raining steadily. We stop to get a plastic bag for Rup’s leg and when I ask her if she wants to turn back she cries, “no! We can’t come this far and not go on!”

We make slow progress through the narrow streets, entering secret passageways and stone doors. By the time we stop at an ancient doorway to get Rup a sarong (being more Western than Indian, she is wearing a short dress and needs to cover her legs), the rain has turned into a torrential downpour. We huddle behind the immense ancient castle doors but it is Rup who finally decides to press on. As people crowd against the shops, we pass through alleys getting soaked by the waterfall that is being funnelled down the plastic awnings. In utter admiration and love for this girl I laugh as Rupali drags us on, hobbling through the rain in a strange mix of devotion and stubbornness. When we get to the mosque, a beautiful sky blue and lime green archway welcomes us. Within the main area, the ground is flooded to ankle height and with her plastic bag already weighted with water, Rup simply makes her way around it, never stopping or slowing down. There are children sliding around the wet marble on their knees an bellies as adults stand in silent worship under archways and awnings. Rup tells me it is lucky to be rained on, it means god is with us. I say maybe he will miraculously cure her fractured foot and she laughs in delight even though I can see the pain in her face. In the mosque, we stand before the yellow doors waiting to enter as the prayers are chanted over the loudspeakers. For a moment I close my eyes and remember the river Muara in Padang, Sumatra, when we would enter the river at high tide just when the early morning prayers were beginning. I look around and notice that of the three clocks only one is working. One, shaped like an anchor, is stuck at 9.51 with the second hand bouncing on the sixteenth second, forever bowing toward the centre room. When the doors open we flock in with a mass crowd, jostling and squeezing our way through this tiny room. The scent of the roses being crushed underfoot envelopes us as our guide leads us through the prayers and then gives us a handful of roses to throw to the centre. We then eat three rose petals as he tells us that the upper wall and ceiling is plated in gold, the lower walls in silver and that the green velvet, gold embroidered cloth hanging above us cost 2 lakh. Moving back outside, someone has stepped on her foot but Rup again approaches the crowded door to make her wish on some red and yellow thread and tie it to the door. As I step forward with my own, a priest pushes my head back in what I can only hope is a blessing as I tie up my own wish thread. On the way out, another man offers Rup a wheelchair but then our own guide tells her that people with no legs come here and manage fine without a wheelchair. Knowing there are more stairs than flat areas anyway I tell her we should just go.

Outside the mosque, before we descend its marble steps, i look out into the street, filled with a growing mass of people. The crowd is even more dense out here beneath the hanging coloured lights. Are they all here to worship? By now it is pitch black and the tiny cobblestone alleyways are lit only by flashes of lightning. Knowing Rup is in pain as she doubles over with each limping step, I insist we try and carry her but she only let’s us do so for a short uphill climb before demanding to be put down because she can manage. The priest thanks us and is grateful that we have arrived before a festival begins tomorrow as we would not have been able to get in through the crowds. More than today? We could barely move as it is.

Driving home I realise we haven’t eaten all day and I remember the prayer I did over the banana, hoping it would keep me sated all day. I feel like I could continue my fast until tomorrow but when both Rup and I rubberneck the Dominoes sign, I know we are thinking the same thing so we pull into a bakery for pizza and paneer pastries. I had forgotten how good puff pastry can be! I’ve never been good at fasting.

As we drive on I am reflecting on these pilgrimages people make. We come to India or go to Mecca or walk halfway across Europe all for a sacred building that offers some kind of spiritual loophole. I have no doubt that these places resonate with a special morphic field. Perhaps it is the millions of prayers that have happened there already or perhaps a divine presence does get stronger in places like that. But I also believe that prayers can be answered just as effectively under a tree in a backyard, over a banana or even on the loo. I believe god is within, and it takes as much determination and devotion and stubborn courage to close the eyes and turn the gaze inwards as it does to trudge through muddy water and push through crowds. Could I have figured this all out at had I not come to India?  I’ll never know. The truth is that even though I know the journey to enlightenment must happen within, I will never stop searching. Whether I’m visiting a temple, a mosque, a mountain or a river, in closing my eyes for meditation I have opened my heart to the world and everyday it offers me new beauty and wisdom.

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Day 39- leafing on a prayer

When a friend tells us that someone they know has died, it is impossible to know what to say. We offer an apology even when we had nothing to do with the death. It is always a little bit harder if the person who has passed is not somebody that we know. We don’t feel any specific grief because we never knew the person. We may feel sadness for our friend who is suffering the loss, but any more emotion than that would be almost inappropriate. We can’t say anything that will make our friend feel better; we can’t take away their pain, or bring their loved one back. There is no magical word that will make them suddenly accept the death and move on. Would they want to? Grief is a natural process and while it is painful, it is necessary and beautiful in its own way. We can’t say much at all. All we can really do is pray.

A dear friend of mine lost someone close to him. I stared at the email on the computer screen for a long time, fingers hovering over the keys. I wanted to hug him, I wanted to make him a cup of tea and give him that reassuring pat on the back that every friend knows how to give. But I can’t because I am in Mexico and he is in Australia. So I offered him the only thing I could. I offered him my prayers.

I pray but not in a traditional way. I especially don’t go to church or recite any of the prayers that were drilled into the back of my eyelids in the endless Catholic education I endured. In fact, the only place I have ever consistently found myself praying is in the bathroom. It isn’t as un-holy as one would think. For starters, most bathrooms are really white, which sort of gives it a sacred hue. They are also the one place where I can go, no matter where I am, and be completely and utterly alone. Whether at work, at the shops, at home or travelling, if you need to be alone, the loo is sometimes the only place for it. No disturbances. No distractions. And it is there, surrounded by white tiles that I occasionally find myself staring at mouldy ceilings and speaking to someone. I have no idea who I am praying to. Does anybody? In my family, our friendly euphemism for going to the toilet was, “I’m going to talk to John.” So I guess, that is what I do. I talk to John. And if you think about the millions of names that people have addressed their prayers to, John is as good a name as any.

Today I don’t pray to John. I don’t go to the toilet. I decide to use a piece of nature for my prayers. One of my favourite ways of praying outdoors (when I don’t need the sanctuary of a toilet) is to find a piece of nature, tell it my prayer and then bury it, or throw it in the ocean, or send it off with the wind, like a message in a bottle. I trust that Mother Nature will know where to take the message.

Walking up the stairs to our little balcony among the trees, I find a dried up leaf sitting on the steps. It is big and green and still in one piece. It is beautiful. I say a quiet thank you to the tree that has placed this on my path so obviously. I walk up to the balcony and sit outside. I stare at the leaf and offer it my prayers. No “Dear John…” or “Our Father…” or even “Dear leaf…” In fact I don’t even form complete sentences. I just think of the person I am praying for and then think of a small affirmation that embodies what I am asking for. Acceptance. Peace. Courage. Understanding. Liberation from worrying. Finally, I offer the leaf a prayer for myself. The serenity prayer.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things that I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

A gentle wind has suddenly picked up around me and I let go of my leaf and watch it float away.