Saturday, December 11, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Ma

Ganesha (Art Institute of Chicago)

     I was reading over today's report from Ravenswood bureau chief Caren Jeskey, and reflecting on how very different people we are, both in personality and outlook, when she hit upon my absolute favorite Hindu deity, Ganesha. Though my affection stems mainly from his title as "Remover of Obstacles,"  according to the placard next to the thousand-year-old Indonesian carving on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. 
     While not given to ritual, whenever a new book is being shopped around, or published, I make a point to pause before Ganesha, touch my thumb to my middle finger in a gesture of entreaty, and utter a single syllable: "Please."
      Although now that I read up on him, I see that Ganesha is also the Placer of Obstacles, when he thinks it'll do you good. So maybe I'm tripping myself up, alerting him to the next opportunity to give me a well-deserved karmic smackdown. Anyway, Caren's report awaits:

     Yes, the strange tragedy of Jussie Smollett and much sadder news is on my mind. I’m as tired of distancing, and as dismayed by the state of our city (and beyond) as anyone. So I decided to take a break from December 2021, pull out an old story of happier times, edit, and share with you.
     A group of joyful yoga teachers bounced out of Moksha Yoga on Carpenter near Ogden, right around the corner from The Matchbox Bar. We piled into cars and ended up at a funky apartment on Milwaukee and Damen one night in the early 2000s. We were young and energetic, and felt invincible. Someone broke out a didgeridoo, an aboriginal Australian wind instrument. I was heck bent on learning, and gave it my all. My lips were swollen for hours afterwards. We had a blast that night, making music, singing, and dancing, then heading home to collapse into bed.
     A favorite friend back then was a young woman from Detroit we called Ma because she was forever whipping up delectable meals for us, and finding other ways to nurture the group. She drove a big old vintage Cadillac—the color of a purple grape— that had belonged to her Grandmother. One night, Ma (whose real name was Dara, pronounced Dada) and I set off, quite late, towards a giant hotel in the northwest suburbs. We were heading to see Ammachi, the hugging “saint” from India. We parked far away from the entrance after driving past a sea of hundreds of already parked vehicles.
     Amma is the consummate social worker. She has raised millions of dollars for various social causes. She once (pre-COVID) traveled the world, “blessing’ people, and raising money along the way. Yes, she is a religious figure to some, but not to me. As an atheist I still find value in many aspects of religious traditions. The beauty of stained glass, the pungent aroma of Frankincense smoke permeating Catholic and orthodox churches, the ritual of bar and bat mitzvahs, and so much more.
     The moment we walked in an Indian couple grabbed me, ebullient, and playfully demanded to know if I had a raffle ticket. I did not. They thrust a small piece of paper with a number into my hand, and pulled me into the banquet hall. There were rows of hundreds of padded banquet chairs, and they pushed me into an empty seat. They laughed and said “now you wait here” and they disappeared. I had no idea where Dara went. This started a journey that was to last deep into the night and into the dawn of the next day.
     As the minutes ticked by, we were guided to move chairs, closer and closer to the front of the room towards a lavish gazebo. It was placed in the middle of a stage that was bedecked with an extraordinary collection of potted trees and flowers. Back center sat a woman with long black hair pulled back into a bun, seated on an elaborate throne of sorts. She was wearing white flowing garments and was covered with rose petals. The stage was packed with devotees sitting all around her, ready to jump to be sure her every need was met.
     On the wide expanse of floor between the padded chairs and the stage were hundreds of people sitting on meditation cushions or blankets, some singing along with mantras (prayers) being played and sung by top notch musicians. There were children sleeping, elderly people leaning on their loved ones, and eyes were fixed on Amma or closed in meditation.
     There was a long single file line of people dressed mostly in loose white garments along the left side of the stage. The line led to a set of stairs. After chair hopping for a long while, I finally found myself in a little tent next to the stage. I was asked if I wanted a mantra. Don't laugh. According to an article in Yoga Journal, "Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are beginning to quantify and confirm some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help free your mind of background chatter and calm your nervous system.” It sounded good to me, and so I received one. I still have the little piece of paper it’s written on.
     I use it sometimes as a way to simply focus on one thing, which quiets my mind.
     My moment had arrived. I was swept to the feet of Amma by a handler on each side of me. I knelt, and she pulled me close and wrapped her warm arms around me, folding me into her bosom. I almost fainted, feeling the deep sense of relief a hug from a grandmother can give you. She fervently whispered into my ear and then handed me a small bag of candy, flower petals and pretty baubles that she had “blessed.”
     Then she placed a little piece of paper into my palm and pressed it there. My mantra. She pulled me back towards her, embraced me again and whispered a long chain of prayers into my ear. Before I knew what was happening I was pulled to my feet and to the stairs to the right of the stage, then released into the seated crowd. I sat for hours, meditating and singing along with the kirtan music being played.
     We sang to the elephant headed god Ganesha who carries a rope to pull us to our highest good, and to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity. At some unknown time— it was close to dawn and I was exhausted— I ventured out into the crowd of thousands and found Ma and other friends. We ate delicious savory saag paneer, which is fresh Indian cheese mixed into an aromatic creamed spinach. For dessert I picked gulab jamun, which I like to call balls of joy — rightly so since they are made of milk powder, flour, rose water and lemon, and remind me of deep fried donut holes that are served hot in a bowl of rosewater sugar syrup.
     Amma, which means Mother, has traveled the world blessing people and raising money to alleviate homelessness, poverty, and injustice. She was born in 1953 in what is now known as Kerala India. Amma’s organization has donated millions to alleviate the suffering brought on by COVID. A month into COVID a free hotline run by her organization in Kochi was set up to provide free mental health counseling. I have heard countless stories over the years about how this woman and her group have worked tirelessly to provide relief to those who need it, and not one iota of scandal, ever.
     What if we were all Ammas? What would this world look like today?


  1. Marvelous. Thank so much for sharing her story.

  2. Being an atheist who can give credence to other people's gods is admirable.

    Most religious people think the rest of us should believe in God. Their god.

    Most atheists seem to feel nobody should believe in anybody's god.

    I believe in God , but none of the popular ones. I think atheists could be right. But it's unlikely. Professing to know an unknowable thing seems a fools errand. Whichever way you look at it.


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