Sometimes a single moment offers a crash course in understanding one of life’s many lessons.  Not the sort of understanding we think we’ve acquired after wading through a pile of “self-help” books or by attending an array of seminars offered by widely advertised experts in the matter.  No …

It’s an understanding which floats by on the wind of a coincidence, unsought and unexpected.   Requiring only our recognition for it to take root and suddenly present us with a burst of pure awareness.


It happened a couple of weeks ago.  I’d eaten my last head of lettuce down to the white sawed-off stem and that morning my  breakfast cereal had consisted of a few multi-grain crumbs dusted with sugar residue.  I’d blown the sugar off into the sink and sprinkled the crumbs on the top of my egg.

A trip to the grocery store was clearly necessary.  I decided to walk to Food Pantry, the small local grocery store a few blocks away.  As I set out, I was grumbling a bit at the fact I’d be paying more for everything at Food Pantry, since it catered mainly to tourists in Waikiki.   And the store would be crowded with them.  Wearing flowers in their hair and those dreadful floral print shirts sold in the hundreds of identically stocked shops lining Kalakaua Avenue.  And  everyone would be laughing and being silly.

I wasn’t in the mood for any of this.  My breakfast had been sparse and my music scores were piling up on the piano.

When I reached the Pantry after fifteen minutes of weaving my way through throngs of people swarming down the main street,  I headed directly for the produce.  The lettuces were fresh and nicely trimmed.  As I reached for one, I noticed it was on sale.  Only a fifty cent reduction on the already inflated price and still more expensive than Safeway.  But somehow it seemed a good deal.  However the breakfast cereal was another matter.  It was tagged at an outrageous price, well over double what I usually paid at the large store.  With a sigh I tossed it into my basket with the lettuce and headed for the checkout.

Only two of the five counters were open.  And there were dozens of people waiting in the queues.  A motley group including every conceivable variety of age, race and gender.  A baby was howling as her young mother tried to console her with a piece of candy while an elderly man in a wheelchair was laboriously pushing himself along with one hand while holding a large black dog’s leash in the other.  A pretty Asian girl had her face buried in a small bunch of flowers, a tanned couple in beachwear openly fondled each other while beside them,  a gay man chattered away on his cell phone.  No one seemed impatient.

I took my place in one of the two queues.  The cashier greeted each person with a cheery nod of her head and exchanged a few words as she rang up the sales.  People smiled as they moved forward and each customer carefully placed the divider bar on the conveyor belt with a friendly nod to the person standing behind.  Suddenly I could feel my impatience  dissolving as I put the divider bar down behind my lettuce and box of cereal and turned to the customer behind me,  an older man with heavy tattoos running up both arms to his neck.  “Aloha” I said.

By the time I’d paid and tucked my groceries under my arm, I was also smiling as I walked out the door.  I looked up the  street and decided to take the alternate route home.  A mere  two blocks mauka took me abruptly away from the bustling streets of Waikiki to the Ala Wai, a beautiful canal embracing the edge of the tourist mecca.  A narrow walkway at the edge of the canal competed with patches of grass. Rows of palm trees  provided  shade and small iron benches had been placed at particularly pretty vantage points,  offering a temptation to stop for a moment of enjoyment.

As I turned onto the promenade, I was  struck by the fact that there were so few people enjoying this treasure.  Barely two blocks away the streets of Waikiki were jammed with tourists and vendors  and the cacophony of giddy visitors, hawkers and hyped-up Hawaiian music drove the noise level to almost intolerable levels.

But here next to the Canal,  you could hear the  palms rustle and the pigeons were so tame, you had to watch your step or you’d suddenly be engulfed in a flurry of fluttering wings.  I  stopped for a moment to look out over the water, marveling at the various shades of blue in the pattern of ripples on its surface.  Mentally pulling out my artist’s palette and deciding between pthalo or cerulean blue with perhaps a touch of Payne’s grey for the shadows beneath the coconut trees at the far end of the canal.  But then there was a yellowish tinge in the bright blue sky.  Perhaps the sun contributing warmth to the hue.

As I walked beside the water, I was suddenly aware of a sweet soft perfume carried on a puff of wind from a group of a dozen or so Plumeria trees planted in a careful row between two of the benches.   The flowers grew in huge bunches, arranged as artfully as if a florist had prepared them for a wedding bouquet.  All that was missing were the white ribbons.  Hundreds of these natural bouquets swayed in the wind above me.  I looked up and inhaled.  Then I looked down and noticed another fragment of perfect beauty lying at my feet.  Somehow embedded in the concrete was an imprint of  single perfect leaf, as flawlessly rendered as any sculptor might produce in his casting studio.  I bent down to touch it, running my fingers over the perfectly textured veins.   Perhaps as the concrete hardened a sudden shower pushed the leaf against its surface … or maybe a worker had gently pressed it into the pavement in a moment of inspiration.

I stood up, suddenly warmed and overwhelmed by the beauty swirling around me.  As  I looked back at the canal and focused on the ripples on its surface, I took another deep breath of the fragrant air.

And suddenly   …

A cyclist came up behind me, deliberately swerving to catch the edge of my bag.  Just close enough to startle me, but not knock me to the ground.  And waiting until the brief moment of contact to yell  “Yahhhhhhhhh”  as he swept by.


I stumbled and dropped the bag.  And as I leaned down to retrieve the lettuce, two parallel experiences offered themselves to me.  The FIRST one was  ….

I picked up the lettuce and saw that one side of it had been bruised in the fall.  Now I’d have to cut away the wounded portion before I sliced it up for my salad.  And the darned thing had been so expensive … at least fifty cents more than if I’d bought it at Safeway.   I dropped it back into the bag as I stood up.  The cyclist was already yards ahead of me, weaving back and forth with a show of silly gymnastics as he threw his hands in the air. I wished my responses had been more prompt and that I’d lunged at him and knocked him off the bike.  I had a brief image of him sprawled on the path.  It was a satisfying figment of my imagination and I enhanced it by adding several bad scrapes to his knees and arms.

I stared at the cyclist’s rapidly disappearing figure and mentally hurled a curse after him, hoping he’d ram into a tree.  Or one of his wheels might come  loose and in his confusions he’d hurtle over the canal barrier into the water.  That would be justice.

The next traffic light was only a few yards away, so I decided to abandon the canal promenade and cross the road to the other side.  Maybe there  wouldn’t be so many cyclists on the sidewalk bordering the rows of luxury apartments.  As I waited for the light I scolded myself for not just taking out the car and going to Safeway in the first place.  The produce was cheaper, my cereal would have been priced fairly and I could have done a little more shopping.   Besides there wouldn’t have been so many tourists either with their silly exuberance.

As I reached my apartment building  and started across the lobby towards the elevators, one of the seniors who regularly came down to collect her mail, greeted me with her standard “Aloha”.   Usually I’d stop for a few words but today wasn’t in the mood for niceties.  And her benign query, ” Are you just coming back from a stroll?”  merely fueled my exasperation.

” Hardly a stroll,” I replied.   ” I ran out of lettuce and cereal and made the mistake of going to Food Pantry.  Horribly expensive and crowds of tourists everywhere.  Everything in Waikiki is so noisy and hectic.  To escape I walked back along the canal and some jerk on a bicycle nearly knocked me down.  And I dropped my groceries and ruined my lettuce.  Stupid cyclists everywhere and our taxes going to pay for the damned bicycle paths while pedestrians are mowed down  … ”   I paused to catch my breath before adding, “with impunity …”

My neighbor nodded her head in a gesture of apparent sympathy.  But her usual blandly pleasant expression remained in situ.  She was clearly oblivious to my tirade.   I managed a weak smile as I pressed the elevator button.

As I opened the door to my apartment, I tossed the grocery bag onto the counter and muttered,  “Thank God that’s done.”



OR …

As I stumbled, dropped my bag and leaned down to retrieve the lettuce, I chose an alternative experience.  The SECOND one was  ….


I picked up the lettuce and saw that one side of it had been bruised in the fall.  Now I’d have to cut away the wounded portion before I sliced it up for my salad.  But I normally cut off the outer leaves anyway.  As I put it back into my bag and stood up,  I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t been knocked down.  In the distance I could see the youth speeding off down the path, weaving  back and forth and throwing his arms up into the air.  Silly  kid.  He could so easily have knocked me off my feet.  But as I watched him, I realized he was making perfect arcs along the walkway,  a little like the diagram of light waves in my elementary physics books.   The cyclist seemed to be in perfect control of those waves and probably had calibrated my position, the speed of his bike and the path with confident, if brash  … precision.   I felt a moment of relief as  I exhaled.

And then continued along the promenade.   Two outrigger canoes raced towards me from the far end of the canal.  I could hear the steersmen and callers shouting directions to their crews as their paddles hit the water in perfect unison.  For a moment I thought of the exquisite discipline of a good symphony orchestra, each member a single cell carefully guided by the maestro into and organic and harmonious whole.  Beautiful.

I paused for a minute and then climbed up onto the cement canal wall and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge just  inches above the water.  Under my sandals  I could see a school of tilapia swirling around a small piece of bread someone must have tossed into the canal.  The piece was far too large to be easily swallowed so the fish were nibbling at it as they jostled into the best position to tear away a tiny piece.  I considered their dilemma for a moment before reaching into my bag and tearing the cardboard flap off my cereal box.  I carefully pried the waxed paper pouch apart and grabbed a small handful of the bran flakes.

“Here you go guys,” I said as I tossed the treat into the water.   The fish swarmed towards the flakes, leaping up out of the water and thrashing their tails as they snapped at the morsels.  I  waited for a few moments as they gorged and then when the water became calm again, I hurled the second instalment high into the air, watching the flakes disperse over a larger area and the fish widening their banquet area.  I felt a little frisson of pure delight, that shiver of joy small children sometimes feel as they feed their pet dog a treat and are acknowledged with a wagging tail.  The fish leaped and circled and thrashed and I sat there enjoying their show.

After a while I swiveled around and started back home.  I was humming under my breath, a fragment of a piano piece I had been working on that morning.  Suddenly the transition into a minor key seemed to answer the problem I’d been wrestling with for a week.  I increased my vocals a bit and was satisfied.  Good … it was good.   I was so engrossed in the melody that I missed the intersection traffic lights and only when I saw my apartment building looming in the distance did I realize I’d have to risk a speedy jay walk to the opposite side. Looking nervously around for any sign of cops who often hid behind trees to nab offenders,   I dodged between a couple of oncoming cars and hopped onto the pavement.

But I turned the corner to my building, there was the familiar police car, pushed back a bit behind some construction cones.  A surly looking officer leaned out of the window and I crammed my fist into my mouth like a toddler about to be scolded.

“Bad bad.  You been feeding the birds and now jaywalking too …” he growled.

I stopped with fist still in position, waiting for my sentence.

Something must have amused him because he continued,  ” Okay so was fish an’ not birds, and you pretty fast on the hoof between those cars.  Sentence commuted.  Just be more careful eh, sistah  …”   he said with a big grin and the familiar shaka sign.

As I turned to go up the steps to my apartment I was chuckling a bit.  I paused just long enough to snap off a large hibiscus bud from the bush at the entrance. I knew it would open on schedule next morning even without water as it gleefully displayed its own unique botanical magic.

I was twirling the bud around with my fingers as I walked into the lobby. Sitting on the bench next to the post boxes was Mattie, one of the seniors who regularly came down to collect her mail.  Every day she’d dress up and put on a some lipstick and then settle down there with her mail in a little pile beside her.  Obviously her mail run was her  excursion for the day and probably one of the few opportunities she had to meet people and have a little chat.  I  always stopped for a moment when she greeted me.

“Aloha dear, are you coming home from the store?”  she asked, her question obviously answered by the Food Pantry bag in my hand.  I nodded as I sat down beside her, commenting on the happy crowd at the shop, the lovely walk along the canal and the famished fish.  Then I added the excitement of the wayward cyclist at which she covered her mouth with her hands and gasped.   And  I wrapped up my afternoon’s adventures with the tale of the policeman who had “waived my sentence”, which got an outright laugh from her.

Before getting up to leave, I presented her with the little hibiscus bud, telling her NOT to put it in water but to place it by her bedside table where in the morning she’d see a miracle.  Leaning close, I whispered mischievously, ” I put a spell on it …”     She looked puzzled until I urged her to be sure and follow the instructions.  “No water”  I warned, waggling my finger at her as I got into the elevator.

As I opened the door to my apartment and laid my bag of groceries on the counter, I paused for a moment and smiled as I said ” Thank-you God …”


We have a choice.  We always have a choice in how to respond to a situation.  Sometimes it will be a very serious issue, even a heartbreaking one and we will react spontaneously.   We will rage or cry or even curse the Universe for causing our pain.  Which is a human and natural reaction. But the overwhelming number of daily issues are small and unimportant strokes on the broader canvas of our lives.  And it’s these small things which we too often allow to dictate our moods.

A “bad mood” is not grief.  It’s petty and self-centered.  As a small child I was not allowed moodiness and was promptly banished to my room to “lighten up” by a very wise mother.  We can argue that the cyclist was wrong and mean and was endangering me.  Or we can say he was exuberant and enjoying his skills and perfectly in control of his wheels.

The bottom line is that I wasn’t hurt.  That I had a choice to work myself up into a rage, ruin the remainder of my walk, raise my blood pressure, be abrupt as I complained to my neighbor and finally arrive home angry and resentful.


Or  …       

















Posted in Inspirational, Modern Parable, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Are We the Sense Organs of God?


It was a sudden fleeting idea which briefly joined  my rather disjointed train of thought and sent a little frisson running through my body.  I resisted the impulse to follow it and placed it in my mental filing cabinet.   I’d think about it later after the meditation session, which the new Pastor at our Unity Church had introduced during his weekly sermon.  For now, I’d meditate.

So I firmly tuned my attention back to the gentle inhalations and exhalations of my breath, filling my lungs with air  and then releasing it with an audible sigh.  Somehow the air seemed to be filled with energy and a sort of “God-ness”.

And somehow these simple sessions with Reverend Jack each Sunday morning brought me face to face with something I had pushed into the background.   And that was the fact that one could openly admit that the purpose of meditation was to connect with the Divine portion of oneself, which was God. For me it was like “coming out.”   Because I’d been talking to God for years and had come to accept it as a secret part of my life which if  confessed to, would probably jeopardize any remaining claims I had to sanity.

This idea being shared openly in a Church was almost too incredible for me to believe.  And I reveled in it. Firstly that the parishioners were being taught to pray as a direct communication which expected and was open to some Divine response. And then that we were actually part of God.   Little fragments of that  Divine consciousness,.  That idea was so diametrically opposed to the Church teachings I had encountered as a child that even decades later, it seemed revolutionary.

There we were, small fragments of God, meditating and communicating with God.   And then the Reverend gently guided us  out of the meditation and into a gradual awareness of our surroundings and each other.  Culminating with a short melodic chant  … ” We are One”.    I loved it.

But  there was that fleeting idea.   In the midst of the meditation there had been that idea.  And I knew somehow that it had not been generated by the meditation, it had been growing and germinating for years.  Only now, in the relaxed and open state of the meditation, it had dared to surface.  If we are all fragments of God  … then …

What if we are actually the sense organs of God?   What if God experiences his creation through us?

The first time the idea briefly occurred to me was about twenty years ago when I found myself with a stop-over in Amsterdam while awaiting my connecting flight to Montreal.  I picked up a tourist folder at Schiphol airport and  thumbed through it,  selecting my three most obvious choices … the Van Gogh Museum, the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens and the Rijksmuseum.   But a fourth option was offered by the concierge when I arrived at my little hotel.   “You must not mizz zee Madurodam  …” she insisted.


And so the next day, I set off to visit this remarkable theme park,  a 1:25 scale replica of all the major buildings and attractions in the Netherlands.  I realize now that had it not been a miracle of craftsmanship and breathtaking detail, I wouldn’t have experienced the pivotal moment which fastened itself into my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to reappear and align itself as an astonishing conjecture.

Because as I leaned over the edge of the raised walkway built over the display and peered down at a maze of tiny streets beneath me, I found myself looking at a tiny world.  A small train suddenly emerged from behind a cluster of buildings, careening alarmingly on its miniature tracks as it seemed to narrowly miss the curve. I suddenly became aware of a faint smell of baking bread and my nostrils flared a bit as I leaned further over the ledge to locate the source of that delicious aroma. Which was a perfect replica of a Dutch bakery shop, built tantalizingly close to where I stood. Its tiny doors stood ajar seeming to welcome me in.

I paused for a moment, enjoying the marvel of engineering and imagination arrayed around me. It was so impossibly small and impossibly perfect.

And suddenly I felt an almost overpowering urge to leap over the edge of the walkway and drop onto the sidewalk in front of the bakery. Then I’d breath in the smell of the bread and walk through the miniature doors to buy myself a fresh baguette. I’d tuck it under my arm and then stroll outside to explore the whole town. Oh I wanted to be right there, down there far below in the network of streets experiencing being in Madurodam. Right inside that little world.

And then I realized for a few seconds that this is what God must feel when He surveys his creation. Surely God must feel exactly the same way. Wanting to descend into the world, savor it and celebrate His own creation. He must. The thought lingered for a few tantalizing moments.

But after a little while,  I moved on to view the rest of the display before reluctantly pushing my way through the swinging gates at the exit and out into the real world of the Hague and the train which would carry me back to Amsterdam.

Over the years that moment occasionally surfaced. But more as a philosophical meandering than anything else. A bright comment to inject into some tale of my travels around the world. A bit of clever introspection.

It was several years later before another incident made me pause and fleetingly wonder if perhaps another part of a puzzle had been offered to me. My dearly loved mother-in-law Beejee had passed away several months previously in Bombay. I was back in Canada for my annual three-month “monsoon” break, when I left the torrential rainy season for the few warm summer weeks in Montreal. My yearly agenda included drinking quantities of safe tap water, consuming bushels of fresh fruit which didn’t have to be peeled or soaked in Potassium Permanganate and indulging in as many of the wonderful French pâtisseries as I could manage. The goal was to gain weight and fortify myself for my return to Bombay in September.

So quite often I strolled down to the Marche de L’Ouest, an exceptionally  well-stocked farmer’s market about a mile from my home. I normally chose to walk through a field of grass under the huge power lines which stretched the length of suburban West Montreal. It was a lovely walk, with ankle length grass under my feet and a beautiful row of wild bushes and trees separating the Hydro property from the houses on the other side.   I loved it.

One particularly lovely day, I was overcome by the beauty around me. The smell of the sweet grass, the sound of the wind rustling the leaves and the beautiful warmth of the sun on my face. I suddenly thought of Beejee and felt a sharp stab of pain around the region of my heart. Beejee was gone and could never again enjoy the fragrance of sweet grass … or hear the wind moving though her beloved wheat and rice farms. She could never again feel the unique warmth of sun on her face … a warmth that somehow encompassed light and energy and maybe even God. I felt tears on my cheeks as I walked.

And then … softly and almost imperceptibly … I felt or sensed a movement inside myself. A ripple of gentle energy which coalesced into a sort of “voice”. Impossible to define within the limitations of words. I slowly realized Beejee was somehow sharing my mind … or thoughts.

And I felt her say  … “ But my Beti … I DO feel the sun on your face and I smell the grass under your feet. Right now, I am feeling everything THROUGH you. …”

I stopped in the middle of the field. The tears now streaming down my face as I embraced my dear Beejee … my heart so full of love and beauty and sunlight.  She had spoken to me, That was clear.  And she was living through me.

Did I for a moment speculate that perhaps God lived through me as well?   I don’t think so. At that point I believed that there was some separation.   I could quite easily slip into an ecstatic union with a tree or a fragment of Mozart   I could create a silent space into which I believed God or “Something Very Large Out There” communicated with me.   But as personally being a conduit to God’s own experience simply hadn’t yet occurred to me.

Until years later when the Unity Choir in Honolulu sang my hymn.   I had recently closed my business and found myself with time and a measure of security I hadn’t enjoyed for years.  Now I could go back to my music  … the music I had given up when I left the West to live in India for twenty years.  Even with a Juilliard degree and a string of other credentials, somehow music had retreated into the background, buried under another culture and eventually lost in the struggle to survive when I returned to the West.   But now  … ah … now I could go back to it.  The guilt for wasting the nurturing attention of so many fine teachers and the scholarships awarded to me in good faith that I would use my training became stronger by the day.   Until I began creating my teaching blogs and then slowly opening my mind to another dream.

Which was composing music for budding pianists.  Now I labored over creating clean scores  and putting them into easily accessible computer files.  I polished up my piano keys and bought a reasonably good recording device.  And then posted my modest compositions on YouTube and my two blogs.  And the results awed me.   Over many months the views began to increase and finally that magical moment when that “exponential” wave took hold and the clicks and downloads soared.

Thousands of people around the world were enjoying my sites and hopefully, some of them downloading the scores and actually playing the music.  Every day I ran my eyes down an ever-increasing list of the visitors’ countries and sometime I even had to Google one to identify and locate it. It was intoxicating.

But although my website links were working wonderfully well, the much deeper spiritual link was still lurking and awaiting my discovery.

Which happened one evening in a small classroom at the Unity Church, where the choir regularly gathered for their weekly rehearsal.  I had gradually begun attending more of the rehearsals, initially helping pick out the individual parts on the piano for the four voice groups and helping with a lovely hymn written in the Classical style by one of the parishioners.  What had begun as a favor, subtly morphed into a genuine appreciation of the group of twenty enthusiastic choristers and their wonderfully enthusiastic leader, who was a professional singer.   It was a delightful group of people who gradually drew me out of my “hermitage”… which was how I referred to my rather reclusive life-style … and into their choir.

But shortly after the Christmas season was over, the choir was given a hiatus for a month.  One day as I was preparing a short piano piece for a recording session, my fingers ran over the piano keys and I hovered over a familiar cadence I had heard as a child.  I played the five chords several times in different keys and veered off into another series which suggested a formal Church-style hymn.  I could almost hear the organ and voices.  I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote a simple set of lyrics.  And my first choral work began gestating.   At the end of the month, I had printed out the score, transcribed the four voices into a digital program  and was ready to present it to the choir.

But I was a little nervous.  Apart from playing my hymn on the piano, the only time I’d heard a vocal approximation was on a rather mechanical digital program where it  had fallen a bit below my hopes.  Moreover the lyrics were decidedly slanted by my enthusiasm for physics and  energy fields although I’d judiciously  edited out references to quarks and neutrinos.   There was a remarkable dearth of traditional flowery phrases.

But when someone called out, ” Oh I love the words …”   I began to relax a bit.   I played it through once on the keyboard and then slowly began to pick out the individual voice lines.

And then … we put it TOGETHER.

Suddenly the voices surged around me,  simultaneously blending  and contrasting.  The harmony was pure and rich.  I sat there in front of the keyboard as I struggled with a rising surge of tears.  It was beautiful.  It was alive.  It was my music.

And then the pieces came together, perfectly sliding into place like fragments of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle.  It was there.   This was how God must feel when he looks at his creation.  Not viewing it from a detached distance in the vast Cosmos, but leaning in to watch it humming with life and energy.   Experiencing it and feeling it.

Perhaps we are the Sense Organs of God?






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Judgment Day … Perhaps

Sometimes an epiphany appears   …  one of those moments which suddenly illuminate and answer the deepest of life’s questions.

It was a photo of a small lily pond taken with a cell phone and attached to an email message with another picture of some cherry tomatoes.  Just a hasty update on a friend’s garden.


Woody's Lilies

But as I looked at the lilies I seemed to remember a faint almost imperceptible perfume and the soft tickling sensation as I buried my nose in the little yellow corona of stamens.   So long ago.   Fifty years or so.   Half a century!

I closed my eyes and was back again in our neighbor’s yard in Montreal.  The Larsens lived in the other half of our modest duplex but a white picket fence divided the surrounding property into two L-shaped gardens.  A little gate with a flip latch sealed our portion against unwanted intruders, which included anyone who might trample my father’s carefully tended flowerbeds.  And I was strictly forbidden to wander into the Larsen’s garden without Mrs. Larsen herself opening her gate, even though there was no latch and the rest of the neighborhood kids regularly stomped their way in, banging the gate noisily behind them.   My mother was a stickler for privacy  … and good manners.

However there was one thing in the Larsen’s garden which imbued it with a magic, none of my father’s beautifully designed floral displays could match.  It was a small oval lily pond.  And resting on the water were the most wonderful round flat leaves.   They lay there perfectly balanced on the surface of the water.   Sometimes Bobby Larsen would dip his fingers into the pond and flick some water onto the leaves where it  formed flawless  transparent pearls.

But the miracle was the lilies.  Water lilies.  In the course of the entire Canadian summer, there would be perhaps three or four in the little pond.  They  announced their impending arrival with long light green buds, which slowly emerged from the water until they stood erect on two or three inches of stem.  Then as they slowly began to swell and turn the color of jade, we knew that in a day or so they would bloom.  I regularly monitored their progress by creeping down beside our side of the fence and hiding behind the lilac bushes as I carefully pried up one of the pickets  … just far enough to poke my head through and squint at the pond.

As soon as I saw a flash of white among the green leaves, I knew it was time to ask Mrs. Larsen if I could come over and see the lily.   But I had to wait until I caught sight of her on her porch or in her garden because ringing her doorbell wasn’t allowed.  Even though  Bobby rang ours and sometimes lifted our gate latch to come into our garden when Dad filled our little yellow plastic pool.  Mother was a stickler for good manners.

One day after I’d spotted the white outline of a lily against the green leaf pads and was loitering in our garden waiting for a glimpse of Mrs. Larsen, I was delighted to see her emerge from the house wearing her gardening gloves and carrying a large pair of garden shears.  She spotted me immediately and waved me over.  She was well acquainted with my water lily obsession and was happy to settle me next to the pond after a stern warning not to lean over or try to touch the blossom

I sat down on a tuft of grass and gave myself over to the sheer perfection of that solitary white flower.  Nothing in the world could match that beauty.  Not my father’s incredible collection of tulips, each bulb carefully exumed after blooming,  stored in sand to mature and then replanted in the fall.   Nor the roses … even the huge salmon-colored one which smelled like oranges.   Nor the violets or trilliums we picked in the woods every spring.   Nothing could match a water lily.   Nothing.   It was pure magic.

And then the miracle … a moment which would fix itself in my memory and surface half a century later, bringing with it pure joy and gratitude for a generous and loving gesture.

Mrs. Larsen knelt by the pond and started clipping little tufts of grass around the edges.     Then she leaned forward and dipped the tips of her shears under one of the lily pads.

Snip …

She  prodded the pad away from the others and dipped the shears again.

Snip …

Incredibly the water lily began to move across the water as she nudged it toward the leaf pad.   Then she gently pushed them both  towards me.

Unbelievingly I stared up at her, reluctant to move until she nodded.   I lifted the lily out of the water, cradling it in its green pad and pressing it to my nose, feeling the soft petals and breathing in the faintest of perfumes.  I don’t remember if I even thanked her as I sped across the grass towards our side of the duplex to show my Mother.

But fifty years later, I thank her.   And am astounded that this small gesture can possibly mean so much.  That it holds its place in a lifetime of memories.  I look up and close my eyes and send out a message to her spirit.

“Where ever you are in this vast Cosmos,  Mrs. Larsen  … I want to thank you.  It was a beautiful gesture and meant so much to a little girl  …”


I sat there for a long time.   And then another gift appeared.   A sudden realization that this is what Judgment Day might be.   Not a harsh judge tabulating one’s sins and virtues and handing down his verdict.  No.

Judgment Day comes when our souls soar free of our bodies and then look back at the world and those we’ve left behind.  And then we KNOW exactly how we touched them.   Their true feelings aren’t masked by politeness or subterfuge.  We  know exactly how we brought them joy … and how we brought them sorrow.  When they remember a kindness we did for them, we realize it.  When they recall a hurt, we know that too.

No one will judge us.   That would not be learning.   And we MUST learn because that’s our purpose on earth.  And the only way to learn is to know what we’ve done.   We will judge ourselves.  Our yardstick will be exactly how we’ve lived our lives and what we’ve given and what we’ve taken.   We cannot hide.  And everything will count.   From a compliment given to an awkward child to a moment of rudeness unleashed on a stranger. It all counts and we will all relive every moment through the eyes of others. And we will learn.

Somewhere in the Cosmos, Mrs. Larsen has just received a thank-you.  I’m sure she’s surprised and probably doesn’t even remember a small incident.  Until now.









Posted in Deep and Serious, Epiphanies, Inspirational, Modern Parable | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Coconut Christmas


Tonight I set up the Christmas tree.  It’s a small artificial one since I can’t bring myself to buy one of the firs shipped in to Hawaii from the mainland a good month ahead of the holiday.  I know that those trees are identical to the ones lined up for sale in parking lots and Church courtyards across the country. but they somehow lack the fragrance I remember from my childhood. And I need to shake the snow off  their branches onto the doorstep before hauling them into the house.   I’m a stickler for tradition.

xmas tree

But I must have a tree … or a reasonable fascimile of one.  Although I’ve drifted away from the Church, I celebrate Christ’s birthday every year by pulling out my old book of Christmas carols and stringing lights on my tree.  I sing the traditional songs.   My favorites are “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel”.   And I insist that it’s a CHRISTMAS tree, not a Hanukkah tree, or a Kwanzaa tree. For this occasion, I’m quite content to divorce Druid rites and practices from this particular symbol.

Christmas is my link to my childhood, my family and a tradition I was born into.  And for me a reminder not to forget the message of Christ even as I so deplore the growth of a morphed evangelism which denies salvation to those of other faiths.  I like to think of Christ as a hippie,  a man preaching love and peace at a time when both were not a feature of that ancient and harsh society.  The image of Jesus overturning the money lenders’ tables in the temple of Jerusalem is a cherished one for me.   I love rebels and iconoclasts.   So I sing the carols with considerable gusto and deck my tree with as many twinkling lights as it will support.

However, not all Christmases are equal.   During the twenty years I lived in India, there were several sad ones, when my longing for the idyllic Christmases I remembered in Canada was almost unbearable.  My resources and imagination were often stretched to the maximum,  but somehow each year I would find some small memento and cling to it.   A crêche set up in a Church courtyard in the Anglo-Indian section of the city.   A few yards of cheap tinsel and a dozen  glass balls which I found in a little market behind the fishing village in Juhu where there was a small Christian community.   Even the slightest drop in temperature and a cool evening breeze drifting inland from the Arabian Sea could somehow carry the faintest hint of frost.  If I focused hard enough.

But one Christmas loomed over me for several months, casting an ominous shadow which refused to disperse, no matter what I did or how hard I concentrated.   My sister in Canada was in the final year of her studies at McGill and had developed terrible spinal problems.  Struggling with constant pain, she’d gained permission to attend her lectures while lying on a mattress at the back of the lecture hall.  But no one seemed to be able to diagnose exactly what was wrong.  Months went by and I got very little news of her condition.

In those days, telephone calls from India were not only terribly expensive, they were almost impossible to put through.  The miracle of the Internet was yet to be born and communication was almost entirely by post.  Which was also unreliable.  Letters usually arrived intact if somewhat belatedly, but all parcels would be opened and the contents pilfered.   Eventually we agreed not to send gifts at all since it was so heartbreaking to see the torn wrappings and the little personal notes ripped apart

So when December appeared on my calendar, this particular year I was in no mood to celebrate.  The boxes of tinsel and chipped glass balls remained in storage under my bed.  The only tape I had of Christmas music was pushed behind the book shelf.   I didn’t want any reminders.  I was going to skip Christmas entirely.   Which in Bombay wasn’t hard to do if I avoided the fishing village and Bandra, the “Anglo” enclave a few miles away from my home.

But then the letter came a few days before December 25th.  I opened it and realized immediately that my sister had sent it from her hospital bed, a few hours before an exploratory operation on her spine.  ” I wanted to send you Christmas greetings,” she wrote.  “I’ll be remembering all the good times we had together, all the perfect Christmases we had …”   Then she closed by telling me not to worry, she was sure she’d be okay and that she’d asked her nurse to mail the letter to me.

When my husband came home. I was still sitting on the balcony with the letter in my hands and the tears streaming down my face.  My dear sister  …. not knowing what lay ahead of her or how she would emerge from that surgery  … even with that terrible fear hovering over her and mere hours before the operation.   Even then she’d taken time to write and arrange for the letter to reach me before Christmas.   Even then.

I was unbearably touched.

A few days later, my husband said quietly, ” Let’s go to Lonavla for Christmas this year.  It’s a hard time for you and we’ll have a little change.  And it’s cooler and will be peaceful there.  We can just relax and forget about everything for a while  … ”

He knew I loved this pretty little hill station which was nestled in the ghats, a range of small mountains east of Bombay.  There was only one hotel, which consisted of five or six tiny bungalows almost entirely hidden by lush tropical vegetation.  It was a favorite respite from the hustle of Bombay and we had spent several mini vacations there.


( Photo courtesy of Arjun Singh Kulkarni)

So we agreed that we’d leave on Christmas Eve right after he came home from the factory. I packed a few changes of clothes and some snacks and told the cook he could take the next two days off.  It was almost five in the evening by the time we set out on the seventy mile drive, wending our way through evening traffic to the outskirts of the city and finally onto the narrow rutted two lane “highway” snaking its way over the ghats to Lonavla.

For the first half hour or so, the drive was pleasant.  The usual obstructions  … cows,  hay  wagons and  large wildly decorated trucks were mercifully sparse and most villagers had retreated to their homes leaving the dusty road almost empty.   Until we rounded the first of the hills and suddenly came to a dead halt.   Looking ahead, we could see a line of trucks, wagons and a few cars nuzzled against each other like a huge snake resting on the flank of the mountain.   A sleeping snake or a moribund one,  since not a vehicle was moving.

We sat immobile for a good forty five minutes until the news was passed down the line,  the driver of each vehicle informing the operator of the one behind him that a truck had plummeted off the road into a ravine about a mile ahead and that the police were on their way.   “Arre Sahib  … there is such much takleef ahead and it is better to go back now when you can turn on the side.  Ahead is no more road for turning.  It is getting most narrow on all sides  …”   the truck driver ahead warned us.

It was clear to us, that he was quite right.  The unpaved shoulder of the road was definitely smaller than it had been even a mile or so back.   We looked at each other for only a moment before my husband turned onto the shoulder and we began our journey back to the city.  As we slowly steered our way back towards Bombay, I opened my window to call out to oncoming cars  ….  “Bahut Takleef  … ek lorry accident  …”

By the time we reached the city,  I was so disapppointed that I found it hard to talk around the lump in my throat.  I knew my husband had tried so hard to lighten my mood and didn’t want to risk that lump exploding into sobs.  So I pretended to nod off to sleep, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears gathering around my eyes.

But about half a mile from home, as we turned onto the Juhu beach road,  my husband suddenly slowed down and steered his car onto the sand.  “Look, there’s still one ice cream stand open.   Let’s get a couple of cones  …”

coconut stall

When I didn’t stir, he opened the door and set out across the sand.   I peered out at a small speck of light, surprised that one of the tiny stalls was still open for business at such a late hour.  Then I closed my eyes again and leaned back against the window.

Suddenly I heard a scratching sound against my door.   It seemed like several tiny paws trying to scramble into the car.  I rolled the window down and looked out.  There was a branch or something which had blown up against the car and was being tossed about by the wind.  I reached out to push it away and saw that it was a coconut branch.  The stiff woody stems of the flower spathe which bear the coconut flowers and eventually the fruit itself.  One of the coconut water vendors on Juhu beach had cut off the coconuts earlier in the day and tossed the branch onto the beach.

I looked closer and there was something familiar about that shape.  Like the spines of a tree without leaves  …  or needles.


There it was.   My Christmas tree.   I reached out of the window and pulled it in.   As I turned it from side to side in my lap visualizing how I would arrange the lights, my husband returned with two cones.   As he handed one to me, he caught my smile and then looking down at the discarded coconut stem, he wagged his head slowly from side to side and murmured … ” I don’t think I’m going to ask ….”

But as we pulled into our driveway, we were both lapping at our ice cream cones. and laughing.

It took me almost two hours to set up my little tree   I wriggled under the bed to retrieve the tinsel and glass balls and finally located the parts of the metal Christmas tree stand and managed to screw it together.  The Christmas carol tape was rescued from its limbo behind my book shelf and as I balanced the star topper on the longest stalk, I was singing along with it.   Finally I stood back and surveyed the tree.   I leaned against my dining table to appreciate the full splendor of it and out of the corner of my eye,  spotted an envelope and a folded newspaper.   My cook Kishan had brought the day’s mail up after I left.

I reached for the envelope.   A Canadian stamp featuring a loon announced it was from home and my hands were shaking as I tore it open.

Sissy had made her own Christmas card for me featuring a silly fat Santa with a huge bandage around his belly and his feet encased in orthopedic shoes.  But he had a grin on his face and was tossing his cane into the air.   Then she’d scrawled  OKAY  in large red letters underneath the jolly old gent.

Teetering between tears and laughter, I held the letter over my heart as I looked across at my little coconut tree,  shimmering in the corner of my living room.

Xmas tree final

And suddenly it was a perfect Xmas …




Posted in Christianity, Inspirational, Tales and Stories, The India Years | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Christmas Cavadee …


It was my first Christmas in Canada for over twenty years.   Montreal was predictably cold … even colder than I remembered and the lovely carols from my childhood had been replaced with pop songs in all the malls.  “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” had begun to grate on my nerves, making forays to the nearby shopping center even less appealing than they already were.   The normal seasonal pleasures of shopping were supplanted with personal sorrow.  My marriage had ended, I had left Bombay and returned to Canada to my little “summer” townhouse just outside Montreal  and was now faced with the prospect of somehow making a living.  And it was Christmas.  My sisters and parents had moved to the West Coast when the Quebec situation had become unpleasant so I would be spending the holidays alone.  But somehow gifts had to be found  and for the first time since my years as a student, I was pinching every penny until it practically dissolved under the pressure.

I was miserable.

I decided that I would have to put up a confident front, since my parents had opposed my divorce and made it clear that they felt I should “see it through to the end” … a view on marriage which I felt so tainted with desperation  that their stance seemed as painful as the divorce itself.  My sisters were less judgmental and merely pushed the topic off the discussion page altogether.   I was definitely rowing my own boat and it was listing badly under the assault of the cold, my loneliness and a terrible fear of my future.

So I decided I would make my sister’s gifts myself.  I was an excellent seamstress, a skill I had honed in India where the local tailors tended to make everything much too snug.  And a huge fabric store had serendipitously opened at the mall a few months earlier.   BouClair was a cornucopia of gorgeous fabrics at reasonable prices.  If you ferreted around you could find remnants of glorious brocades and velours stashed on the “dollar stage”, which was the focal area of the store.  It was a large raised platform with three tiers of assorted fabrics, no two rolls of which were alike.  But the yardages varied widely …  you could hopefully unfurl a roll and find less than a yard or get lucky and find six.  It was largely potluck.

I picked out two McCall’s sewing patterns from the  “Stitch ‘N Save”  rack which was partially hidden behind a large table, obviously to discourage thrifty customers while adhering to the bargain listings in the BouClair ads.   I chose a dress pattern  for my middle sister and a waistcoat for the youngest.


Then I mounted the dollar stage to choose the fabrics.  A lovely gold and black brocade grabbed my attention  and I unrolled it gingerly, praying it would be a large enough piece for a vest.   It was.  Then a beautiful purple and turquoise floral print for the dress.  I could cut a flower applique from the material to trim a  little corduroy top and it would be gorgeous.  I could visualize both outfits as I took the patterns and the fabrics to the checkout counter.   Perfect.  Just perfect.

It took me a week to finish both outfits.  And it was a week mercifully free of the anguish I had been feeling about my lost life in India.   I turned my attention back to the whirring of my little sewing machine and concentrated on the memories I had of my childhood and the magical time Christmas had always been for us.  I even baked a small batch of shortbreads, using my grandmother’s old recipe which relied heavily on butter.   Lots of butter.

Finally everything was completed, the garments pressed and folded neatly into their boxes and carefully wrapped for mailing.  As I tucked a little note into each package, I looked at the gifts and felt satisfied.  I had splurged on a roll of expensive foil paper and several yards of real silk ribbon.  But I had managed to save enough brown paper bags and grocery twine to tie the parcels up securely.

I looked at the foil a little ruefully as I calculated that it had cost almost as much as the fabric.   And I felt a twinge of apprehension over the upcoming mailing charges.   I hoped the Post Office wouldn’t charge me too much for the postage.  Surely it couldn’t be more than ten dollars.

Then I looked outside.   A storm had crept up quietly while I was  busy wrapping the gifts and now I could barely see across the street.  Huge swirls of snow rippled across the yard and swept over the windows leaving little drifts at the base of the panes.  I stared out at the blizzard balefully.  I had to go.  The parcels had to be mailed before the weekend or they wouldn’t reach the West Coast in time for Christmas.  I had to go.

So I fumbled in the closet for some sweaters. I hadn’t bought a coat when I arrived in October and merely layered sweaters under a large woolen poncho from Kashmir.  Four sweaters and the poncho became my standard winter garb.  But I had been constrained to buy a pair of winter boots … the cheapest pair I could find.  Gray vinyl round-toed monstrosities with artificial fleece lining.   They were truly hideous, but the edges of the poncho partially covered them and the overall effect was so eccentric that the boots were safely lost in the confusion of sweaters and fringes and flapping panels.  And they were warm.

I set out for the Post Office, taking a short cut across the parking lot behind my condo.  Rows of cars lay half buried in the snow and the sight of dozens of vehicles offering potential warmth and locomotion  suddenly tipped my mood.  I plummeted from mild frustration to a bitterness so strong I could taste it on the tip of my tongue.  No one else had to walk half a mile in a blizzard to the Post Office.   They had cars.  No one else spent hours actually making gifts.   They just whipped out their credit cards and bought them. No one else counted the pennies and hesitated over such little details as wrapping papers and ribbons and postage.  Postage  ….. even that damned postage would set me back another ten or fifteen dollars.

As I plodded along, the snow suddenly changed to little splinters of ice as the temperature dropped and from time to time I lost my footing and a sudden mini avalanche of snow tumbled over the edges of my boots onto my toes.  My face became numb with cold and even the edge of the poncho I had pulled over my nose quickly began to freeze into a solid mask of ice.  Every step was a battle against the snow.  I could feel my throat tightening and tears threatening.  It was so unfair.

Suddenly a particularly strong blast of wind shook a sharp splinter of ice from one of the trees at the edge of the parking lot.   It slashed across my face and as I automatically reached up to touch my cheek, I could see a little smear of blood on my mitten.  A small red spot.  No bigger than the tip of a quilting pin.

And suddenly I remembered.


“Cavadee …..”    A festival of penance and pain celebrated in Mauritius.

My husband and I had spent a year in that lovely and remote little island anchored in the Indian Ocean as we struggled to set up a business in the “zone franche”  … an industrial park set up to encourage investments.   I had loved that little speck of land  from the moment our plane had dropped precipitously towards the sea only to hit the runway seconds before it appeared.

And now suddenly I remembered the Mauritian woman and that extraordinary festival.

pierced cheek woman

She was walking barefoot through the streets of Vacoas in the midst of a large procession of people moving towards a Kovil or temple.  A silver spike with arrowheads on each end was driven though her tongue.  Several ornamental chains were draped from this spear across her cheeks.  Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be in some sort of trance.  Walking behind her was a man with a large flower-decked arch over his shoulders.  His tongue was also pierced with a much thicker spear and a row of shiny needles punctured the entire length of his arms, creating  what looked like  silver centipedes.

The occasion was Cavadee, a festival of penance practiced by  Tamil Indians in honor of Lord Murugan.  And it is one of the most important of all the various celebrations practiced iin Mauritius by its wildly diverse population.  The participants fast for ten days before their ritual ceremony begins with the piercing of their bodies with silver spikes or little hooks from which bells or lemons are suspended.  Many worshippers carry large bamboo “cavadees” … heavily ornamented arches laden with flowers arranged around a pair of sumbhoo, or copper pots filled with milk.  Most women leave the heavier cavadees to the men and content themselves with large sumbhoo balanced on their heads.  All are barefoot, except for the occasional celebrant wearing “bed of nails” sandals.   From time to time sympathetic onlookers pour cool water onto the searing pavement to ease their journey.

I joined the procession leaving my husband behind.  Although he was a Hindu, this particular ritual was beyond his ability to view comfortably.  It was a Tamil  penance and he was a Punjabi.   I on the other hand was fascinated by the combination of fervor and trance and was immediately caught up in the extraordinary spectacle wending its way down the road.

cavadee woman I fell in behind a young teenage girl with a single spike driven through her tongue who was one of the only females carrying a cavadee on her tiny shoulders.   From time to time her boyfriend leaned over to steady it, with an expression of pure love on his face.   I was unbearably touched by both of them.  I removed my sandals and put them in my bag, feeling the least I could do was tolerate the hot pavement under my feet.

We marched along for a couple of miles.  From time to time, one of another of the celebrants would suddenly begin to dance with eyes rolled back as he teetered under the weight of the cavadee.  As my feet began to swell with the heat of the road, I welcomed the occasional splash of cool water aimed at my feet by some bystander and fixed my eyes resolutely on the dome of the temple becoming visible ahead on the top of a small mountain. When we reached the temple, the cavadees would be put down on the temple grounds and offerings made to them.  Then the sumbhoo would be opened and the milk poured out into the palms of celebrants an onlookers.  If the milk had remained uncurdled after more than four hours of marching and gyrating on the hot streets, then the offering was accepted by Lord Murugan.   I extended my cupped palms and took a sip from one of the proffered sumbhoo.

It was still sweet.

I nodded and murmured “Achaaa …    It’s good.”

Later I learned more about this remarkable festival.  I learned that people often make promises of “cavadee” to propitiate the God, or to thank him …. or even to offer a sort of bribe.  A child survives a serious illness and his parents offer a certain number of cavadees …. sometimes for a lifetime.   And as they march, their pain is part of that offering.  And somehow that pain is transformed into an almost ecstatic joy as they near the temple.

They offer their pain as a gift.


I shook the snow off my poncho and myself away from Mauritius and back squarely into the midst of a blizzard in Montreal.    Which included struggling through ever growing drifts of snow and stopping every few minutes to scoop out the frosty flakes from my boots.  But suddenly that tiny spot of blood on my mitten was oddly beautiful and sound of my boots crunching against the snow, almost pleasurable.  The cold was refreshing, jolting me into awareness.   I closed my eyes, narrowing them into slits as I plodded toward the Post Office.  Which somehow had been transformed to a Kovil.   The Temple of Dollard Des Ormeux Postal Services.  I could see the rooftop of the largest store in the mall barely visible about the bare treetops ahead of me.

My heart was suddenly overwhelmed with love.   For my dear sisters.   I held the parcels closer to my chest and imagined a cavadee balanced over my head.   I was celebrating Cavadee for my sisters.  And had the four feet of snow allowed it, I would have done a twirl or two with my eyes shut in a delicious trance.

Was that the echo of a “red kettle” bell I had just heard floating on the frigid air?

Or   …..  perhaps a temple gong …





Posted in Epiphanies, Inspirational, Tales and Stories, The India Years | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pleasantness is like a Virus … it’s Contagious



Virus Avian

She was a little colorless wren of a woman standing behind the service counter at Sears almost thirty years ago. The queue of people waiting in line in front of her was excessively long and each person seemed to have an exessively large item to be returned or exchanged. Tempers were becoming more tattered by the moment and the gentleman ahead  of me was visibly irritated. He’d placed his box on the floor in front of him and from time to time gave it a little kick forward.

Finally we reached the head of the line and he stepped up for his turn. He slammed his box on the counter and immediately began his harangue, complaining loudly that he’d been waiting for over half an hour and had other things to do with his life than loiter around hoping for some service.

The woman stood with her head bent, like a child receiving a scolding. She let him wind down and when he finally paused for breath, she said, very softly … “I’m so sorry for your long wait. We normally close the service counter for lunch hour, but today because we’ve been so busy, we decided to stay open. ” She paused for a perfect moment before adding … “ We drew straws and I got the short one …’” She spread her hands out helplessly and reached for his parcel.

Apparently mollified somewhat, the man calmed down and the complaint was registered. But as she handed him his money, she gave him a wonderful warm smile and said, “ On busy days like this, I sometimes feel like Ollie Octopus …” She wiggled her arms like tentacles.

And as he turned to leave, I could see traces of amusement  hovering around his lips.

When I stepped up to the counter, the residue of the little clerk’s smile was still lingering in her eyes. I somehow felt I’d just witnessed her cast some sort of  spell on the angry customer. I leaned forward and whispered, “ Wow that was some magic … ”

She beamed at me, her pale  face suddenly radiant.

“It’s actually quite simple.”  she said.  “Pleasantness is like a virus … it’s contagious …”

Decades have passed since that incident at Sears. I have travelled all over the world, been involved in more social situations than I could have imagined when I first saw this  drab little  lady cast her spell and share its secret with me. But she gave me one of the most precious lessons I could ever have learned. It gave me a doorway to a life almost devoid of petty confrontations and those small irritants which sour so many people’s daily rounds. It taught me to diffuse unpleasant situations and to genuinely delight in making people smile and lifting spirits.  And the rewards are immeasurable.

How did that receptionist recognize me over the phone out of thousands of patients who go to Walmart for eye exams and glasses?  She told me because I was one of their favorite patients.  Why did the clerk at the pharmacy offer to run all my other purchases through quickly with my prescription and save me the long queue at general checkout.  How did I find myself with one of those coveted bulkhead seats on that overbooked holiday flight?  Hey, my bill from my dentist suddenly has a “Professional courtesy discount” … whatever that is.  The grocer in Chinatown produces perfect mangos from somewhere behind the counter and insists they’re the same price as the small bruised ones in the bins outsided his store.

Everywhere there is kindness and smiles.   And for every favor I respond with appreciation.  And it’s real and it’s from the heart and reminds me each time how connected we all are.  And how much joy we can share in little daily transactions.

Because that clerk was right.  Pleasantness is contagious …

And it is magic!






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Remembering Dr. Jorge Camara


camara photo


“Dr Camara died last week …”

I looked up from the jewelry I was packing away for the day. The name didn’t immediately register and I was innured to my co-worker’s references to the movers and shakers on the Honolulu social scene. It wasn’t my milieu. I must have looked puzzled.

“You remember … the guy who thought you played like Glenn Gould …”

I stopped folding the pearl necklaces into their storage wrappings. As I looked down at my hand resting on the felt roll, I felt a wrenching stab of pain and my eyes blurred.

I remembered. And that memory evoked a depth of feeling I was totally unprepared for. Jorge Camara. I had met him only once briefly in Saunder’s Piano Shop … one of the two larger music stores in Honolulu. We had hovered over the various pianos sharing fragments of music for a delightful half hour or so. It was the briefest interlude. But now I felt a loss so acute I wanted to lay my head down on the counter and wail with a grief which seemed strangely out of proportion to those few moments shared in that piano shop.

When I met Jorge Camara, I had been living Hawaii for over fifteen years. I had arrived with skills which did not translate well into a job in that tropical paradise. Canadian born, I spoke British English and Quebeçois French and my area of expertise was Baroque music. I had no familiarity with the ubiquitous island ukulele. While attending Juilliard in New York, I had met and married an Indian student studying business at Columbia University and had moved to Bombay where I had spent most of my adult life. Which endowed me with fluency in Hindi and various traditional skills involving rice paste and embroidering silk with gold wire threads. None of which was remotely relevant to Hawaii. A job counsellor ruefully suggested that if I had another degree in Quantum Physics, I would be a suitable candidate for food stamps.

In short, I was virtually unemployable. But over those first difficult years, I had cobbled together various part-time jobs, ranging from piano teaching in my home, to selling books at an occult bookstore and manning a craft table in several hotels, where I sold Hawaiian featherwork and gradually learned the language and culture of the original Hawaiians. My life was a patchwork of various mini jobs and I grew to enjoy it immensely.

But I had learned that in order to survive and move forward to actually thrive, one had to let memories go. Watch them fade and bid them farewell while one turned towards the present and the future.

No use to remember a life in India, where my own driver waited downstairs for me each morning. Nor the cook, nor the dobhi who washed the clothes, nor the sweeper or the mali who tended my garden.  And above all, not to remember the life I had originally dreamed of. Before I went to India. The life of a brilliant concert pianist.

My idol had been the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. I spent the summer in Montreal before my first semester at Juilliard, practicing Bach’s Goldberg Variaritions, Gould’s signature piece. The one with which he first captured the attention of the music world and which propelled him onto the world stage. I played it over and over. I imitated Gould’s terrible posture and irritating humming. I waved my hands and gyrated and in those three summer months, reproduced a rather startling rendition of those variations.

In September, I left for New York and proudly sat down at my first lesson with the eminent professor Edward Steurmann. Lifting my hands with a flourish, I began the opening Aria. I stroked each key and hovered with my nose to the keys as I permitted myself the occasional Gouldian off-key murmuring. Oh I had it wired.

Suddenly there was a howl from the professor, who stormed over and grabbed my music.

” You are playing ziss like zat Glenn Gould … yust like Glenn Gould.. ” For a moment my heart skipped a beat joyfully. Then he added … ” Und you both play like schmucks …”

I was unfamiliar with that particular Yiddish word which I later learned refers to male genitalia and is NOT complimentary. But I was quite aware that Steurmann was terribly angry as he chased me out of the studio, hurling the music after me. Now years, later I find the incident funny but at the time, I resisted the impulse to head for the airport and retreat to Montreal.

When I met Jorge Camara, I hadn’t played that Aria for almost forty years. I rarely played anything for my students beyond the simple sonatinas and the Fur Elise.  And occasionally I treated them to the first pages of the Pathètique to jolt them to attention. But I avoided the great classics I had once played so beautifully. My music was the past. The fact that I could no longer play with the skill and dexterity I had when practicing the obligatory eight hours a day simply made me unhappy. I didn’t want to listen to myself or watch my fingers move stiffly over the keys. My music was the past. It was over.

But that particular afternoon, I had headed to Saunder’s to pick up some music for my students. I had just come from the beach and was attired in my surf shorts and a ratty T shirt with my hair still wet and dripping down my back. I planned to grab the music quickly and get home. But there was a new piano in the showroom. A gorgeous black shiny Baldwin, my favorite. Ooh la la, how could I resist?

I sat down and tentatively stroked the keys. Oh so lovely. Just like the one I had practiced on at the Quebec Conservatory as a young student … the one in a special studio next to the Director’s office, which he let me use from time to time. I closed my eyes and the past sneaked in before I could censor it and rescue myself.

I began the opening notes of the Aria. The notes were still there, pure and beautiful. It was still there in my fingers and in my heart. It was still there. With my eyes shut I was back in Montreal in that studio next to Clermont Pepin’s office. He would open the door in a moment and say softly in French … ” Ahhh, c’est magnifique …” before going back to his work. I was playing in another time and my fingers rememered what my conscious mind had long forgotten.

Suddenly I heard a someone say, ” Glenn Gould … yes yes … like Glenn Gould …”

I opened my eyes and a local man with a huge grin on his face was dancing around the piano. He was so excited he could barely keep still as he kept moving from side to side, examining my fingers and exclaiming with obvious relish, “Glenn Gould …. yes yes …”

For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. Not many ordinary people even know this great pianist’s name. Gould’s work is the province of connoiseurs rather than the vast majority of concert goers who prefer the more “popular” classical pianists. And I was indeed playing in that style. Most people would assume I was just a little eccentric as I bent with my nose practically touching my fingers. But this local Hawaiian man had recognized the music, the style and most of all … Gould.

I looked at him, totally confounded. He was a smallish man with sparkling eyes and the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas time. He had the lovely soft lilting voice of the island men and was attired in the shorts and T shirt which is practically an island uniform. His energy was contagious and in a few moments, we were both flitting from piano to piano as each in turn played a few fragments of the Goldbergs. As I watched him playing those familiar notes, I realized that we were both equally astonished.

I don’t remember too many details of that half hour  … only that our delight in sharing our love for music and particularly Glenn Gould,  was overwhelming. We parted with an exchange of names. “Jorge Camara” he said.


It was only  a month or so later when I stopped at Saunders for more sheet music that I found out who this ardent admirer of Glenn Gould really was.   I had assumed he was a local music teacher and  asked the owner of the store, where he taught. A wry smile crossed his face.  There was a moment’s pause before I was given the answer.

Jorge Camara was a very well-known ophthalmologist and eye-surgeon whose pioneering work had extended way beyond the shores of Hawaii.  He had performed the world’s first orbital surgery via long-distance telemedicine, discovered a condition found in Asians called involutional lateral entropion and a surgical procedure to correct it.  He had written numerous highly technical articles in various scientific publications including topics such as radiofrequency in pterygium surgery, a new test to diagnose blocked tear ducts and the use of an image guided system in orbital surgery.

All of this impressive enough. But two other things which somehow explained the almost palpable energy and enthusiasm which had radiated from this remarkable man.

Jorge Camara was a philanthropist whose acts of kindness went far beyond mere donations and fundraiser’s.  He was a member of the Aloha Medical Mission and for many years traveled to Third World countries where he and other members of the team performed thousands of surgeries for poor and needy patients. And then carrying the mission even further he began bringing young ophthalmologists from the Philippines to Honolulu to personally train them.  He later expanded this personal program to include ophthalmologists from across Southeast Asia.

But it was his experiments playing live piano in an operating room which caught my attention. He had never mentioned this in the short time we’d shared our skills as we’d sampled  piano after piano in that showroom.  Not a word of it.   It had only been Gould and Bach and  … the music.

Apparently Jorge Camara  had studied the effects of music performed for patients immediately before surgery and found that blood pressure was reduced and heart and respiratory rates slowed enough to reduce the need for medications before and after surgery.   To further illustrate this. he brought a piano into the operating theater and played classical music for his patients before their surgery.  One of these events is recorded on YouTube.   Camara attired in full scrub suit is treating his patient to some Debussy as the medical team stands by waiting the proper moment to begin the operation.  There is an element of joyful whimsy in that video which perfectly conjures up my recollection of this remarkable man..


Now standing in the jewelry shop, with my eyes overflowing I gathered together all these fragmented memories.  Dr. Camara had died.   And the pain was terrible.

But there was one thing I was certain would ease my anguish.  And would perhaps reach the spirit of Jorge Camara.  When I got home, I searched for a piece of music I knew was somewhere in a pile of scores pushed to the back of my closet.  After a time I found it.  An old Peters Edition of the Goldberg Variations.

goldbergs front cover

I sat down at my piano and closed my eyes as I played the opening notes.  They were pure and clean.  I glanced at the music from time to time to make sure the notes were correct.  I relaxed into the sound until I could almost hear the Director of the Conservatory say “C’est magnifique” and after a few moments a softer voice whispering … ” Gould  … yes yes …”

What can I give to you Jorge Camara?   How can I thank you for a small moment which gave me back something I had lost for so many years.   I think it can only be this  … the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.

For you Dr. Jorge Camara, with aloha and gratitude.











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