Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss & Transformation
By Mirabai Starr
Nine years after Jenny’s death, I stood on the bridge over the Little Ganga at Kainchi, Maharaj-ji’s ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was dawn. I had been up since four, enacting the timeless traditions of India: wake to the sound of gongs and bells; bathe with a bucket; gather prayer book, prayer beads, prayer shawl; and head to the temple for morning meditation. Move from deity to deity—Lakshmi, Shiva, Hanuman—offering songs like flowers at their feet.
I had been preparing for this pilgrimage all my life.
When Jenny was around eight years old, we began saving for a trip to India. I set up a gallon pickle jar next to the woodstove and dropped loose change into the slot whenever it occurred to me. But it was too easy to rob our modified piggy bank when finances were tight, intending to replenish the amount—with interest—as soon as I was solvent. Which never happened. Then Jenny started high school, and I promised that we would go to Kainchi as a graduation present. I would have four years to get the money together.
Jenny died in her freshman year.
Nine, according to the late American sage Ian Starr, is the number of completion in many esoteric traditions. Nine days of Navaratri leading to Durga Puja. nine Durga Pujas since the full-moon night of Jenny’s death. And now here I was, honoring the ninth anniversary of Jenny’s transformation in the place where it all began: the little temple in the mountains near the border of Nepal where decades ago Ram Dass sat with Maharaj-ji, and the ripple from that encounter transfigured a hundred thousand lives. Mine. Jenny’s.
I had come here to complete something.
I leaned over the railing. The full moon was setting in the west, and the first rays of sunrise were tumbling over the walls of the canyon, dropping into the stream, and bouncing off the boulders. I took a tiny packet of human ashes from my satchel and opened it into the air. They drifted to the water below. These were not Jenny’s ashes I was releasing, but rather a small pinch of the burnt body of the son of a woman I did not know, who had asked me to carry this trace of him to the sacred land where our mutual guru had lived. Someone had done this service for me once, and it seemed right to pass the blessing on to another bereaved mother.
The sun climbed with more confidence into the morning sky, and I moved from the upstream side of the bridge to the downstream side, to accompany the flow of ashes with my eyes. I called on Jenny to befriend this man-child and help him navigate his journey beyond the body, and on Maharaj-ji to protect him in his blanket of love. Suddenly a pair of monkeys came scrambling down the banks of the river and splashed into the water. They began to play. They lifted handfuls of river water and poured them over each other’s heads, shrieking with joy. They chased each other, ran away, leapt into each other’s arms, and ricocheted off. Then they both paused, looked up at me on the bridge, and for a moment became as still as stone, before promptly resuming their monkeyshines.
I let magical thinking have its way with me and recognized our dead children greeting each other in these joyous monkey bodies, cavorting in the ancient land of the yogis, blessed by the king of monkeys, the incarnation of Hanuman himself, Neem Karoli Baba. Why not?
The monkeys disappeared into the forest, and I headed back through the temple gates for chai. As I was crossing the courtyard, a rustle of excitement passed through the devotees gathered there. Sri Siddhi Ma, Baba’s successor, was emerging from her rooms. Everyone rushed into position to prostrate themselves at her feet. I drifted toward the front of the crowd. Ma walked over to where I was standing, and our eyes met. She did not smile, yet her gaze exuded a kind of childlike mischief and delight.
“Ah, Mira,” she said.
“Pranam,” someone behind me whispered. I dropped to my knees and pressed my torso against the stone floor at Mata-ji’s feet. I rested my right hand on her socks.
Philosophically, I did not really approve of the practice of bowing to another human being. “The age of the guru is over,” I had preached. “This is a time of collective awakening, of mutual empowerment. We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Etcetera, etcetera. But the urge to pranam before this elderly being, who was revered as a saint, overrode my opinion on the matter. Oh, just this once, I thought. Just to see what it’s like.
Here’s what it was like: It was like becoming snowmelt and flowing down a mountainside into a waiting lake. It was like meeting ten thousand years of Vedic history in my own body. It was like finding a cave in the snow where a fire is burning and a kettle of stew is simmering. It was ordinary and holy and utterly appropriate.
When I rose, Mata-ji was speaking to her attendant in Hindi, who turned and said to me in English, “Mother will see you this afternoon.”
I floated through the day in a state of radical simplicity. Being at Kainchi untied my knots. I did not worry about anything. Everything pleased me.
“Your daughter was a great being,” Mata-ji said to me later, as I sat at her feet in her private room at the back of the ashram. “She died at exactly the right time, in the perfect place.”
My eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t cry.” She shook her head and wagged her finger. “She is with you. She guides your steps.”
I wiped my eyes.
“Now,” said Mata-ji, “what special thing happened this morning?”
I was about to tell her about the ashes and the monkeys when I remembered. “The amrit,” I said. “It was delicious.” Mata-ji pressed her hands together and beamed at me.
Today was the celebration of Rasa Lila.
In the Hindu tradition, the first full moon of autumn commemorates the mythic night when Krishna, Lord of Love, danced with the gopis (milkmaids) in the moonlight, fulfilling the deepest desire each maiden hid in her heart. The day before, devotees prepare khir, a sweet rice pudding, and leave it outside all through the night where it soaks in the juices of the moon and is transformed into amrit: divine ambrosia.
Siddhi Ma herself cooks pots of khir in the ashram kitchen and sets them on the roof under the full moon, and then serves the sacred mixture to temple guests for breakfast the next day.
In this moment, I felt that Mata-ji saw into my girlhood heart—the longing, the betrayal, the cynicism, and the poetry. My darshan was probably complete. A dozen other devotees—Indians and Westerners—were waiting for their chance to sit at the feet of the Mother and ask for guidance.
“Any other questions?” Mata-ji said.
“Did she suffer when she died?”
There. That was the question that had been smoldering in the pit of my belly for nine years. But how could this old woman, who lived in a place that had been forgotten by time, possibly have an answer to the complicated set of conditions that took my daughter’s life, let alone address Jenny’s subjective state?
“She died in joy,” Mata-ji said.
I bowed my head. I touched her feet. She raised my chin, looked into my eyes, and said it again.
“She died in joy.”
Mirabai Starr writes creative nonfiction and contemporary translations of sacred literature. She taught Philosophy and World Religions at the University of New Mexico-Taos for 20 years and now teaches and speaks internationally on contemplative practice and interspiritual dialogue. A certified bereavement counselor, Mirabai helps mourners harness the transformational power of loss.
Mirabai’s newest book, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, is essential reading for anyone ready to awaken the feminine mystic within and birth her loving, creative, and untamed power into the world.
Mirabai has received critical acclaim for her revolutionary new translations of John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle. She is author of the poetry collection, Mother of God Similar to Fire, a collaboration withiconographer William Hart McNichols, and the award-winning book, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Her book, Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, received the Spirituality & Practice “Best Books of 2015” award. She lives with her extended family in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
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