The north pantry is barely lit by a rising sun. The black wooden stool is centered before one counter, under a window. The stool looks Asian. The journal lies open, scribbles on both pages. I flip it to a new page, which might be called the page of Now. To the left of the journal sits the lacquered box with Japanese figures painted all over it. I’ve not noted this Asian theme right in front of my face, in our kitchen. Nothing else in our house is Asian. I’m intrigued by my own ignorance. I take a deep breath. I must remember to slow down and be mindful. Otherwise, the ritual will be a waste of time and money.
Inside the box are pages of handwritten notes on top of pill bottles and tinctures – my stinctures, H. called them, with affection and perhaps tolerance. At the time I asked him if my body has been smelling funny since I began the regimen, but he evaded the question. The past two months I’ve been dutiful in the pursuit of health. The tinctures and pills themselves are distinguishable by smell. For the first week or two of taking them, I studied each bottle, held it in my hand, and admired the weight, as if the weight itself carried potential. The graphics on the labels were beautiful, exotic, promising; the Latin names adding to the mystery. I remember the excitement that came with the first deliveries: I tore open the packages, counted the bottles, and then gently opened each one. Into one box someone had slipped a tiny Tootsie-Roll, a little log of hope and goodwill, a blessing from a stranger. I teared up.. Om.
I remembered the teaching: that which is inhaled has the power to reach every cell in the body. I sampled each tincture with a deep inhalation.
First, faith. Everything else has failed.
I know this: without faith things do get done. Against the odds bodies may heal, lives may be lived and lives may be saved. We are held in the warp and weft of Indra’s bejeweled net, after all. That we are in control of this life is a vanity. To start.
With faith, however, miracles happen. I am certain that the miracles in my life began happening before my faith in them developed consciously. I was born into a family of great love, which invested all its members naturally with faith. I cannot remember a time when faith was not a backdrop into which I could fall when exhausted. Of course my needs will be met. Of course miracles happen. Of course I belong to this world, am supposed to be living here. If I could graph the alternating shine and tarnish of my faith throughout these 56 years, I would see, no doubt, the continual righting of my course, refining, polishing faith determinedly in relation to the intensity of the pain that comes with greeting any number of days.
I have taken the tinctures sleepily some mornings and even while feeling downright dispirited. These are the times of greatest pain. I have taken the tinctures with mindfulness and energy, too, rising to the occasion. I feel the strongest effects when I take them in the spirit of someone hoping to extend her life one more day, someone – I’ll say it – who is desperate. I’m beginning to think this is the only way to live, as the Buddhists suggest: with death waiting patiently over one’s left shoulder.
Once I had determined this course, I needed a ritual to keep me on track. I needed a prayer. But which one?
The Gayatri Mantra – “She who protects the Singer” – wends its way throughout the beloved Upanishads, which I keep bedside. * Fragments of Gayatri, hymn to the sun, are spread like bread crumbs in the maze of these scriptures. I wanted a prayer to write itself on the bones of my aching body. I wanted a prayer to anchor me during the healing and to help the herbs move through the physical obstacles of gnarled bone, spirochete, scar tissue. If only I could purify!
How to internalize a text so that it transmits all that it can into and through a body? How do reader and text merge? Wallace Stevens (Passionate man! Extraordinary mind!) crafts this longing for union in his poem “The House Was Quiet”:
The reader became the book; and summer night was like the conscious being of the book.
Might this body become the prayer?
I brought the Upanishads into the kitchen and laid them beside the tinctures. I opened each arsenal. I read from the Brhad-aranyaka.
On that adorable light: The winds blow sweetly for the righteous, the rivers pour forth honey. May the herbs be sweet unto us. To earth, hail. Let us meditate on the divine glory: May the night and the day be sweet. May the dust of the earth be sweet. May heaven, our father, be sweet to us. To the atmosphere, hail. May he inspire our understanding: May the tree be sweet unto us. May the sun be sweet, may the cows be filled with sweetness for us. To the heaven, hail. May I indeed be all this, hail to the earth, atmosphere, and heaven. … You are the one lotus flower. May I become the one lotus flower among men.
There is much to unpack here, in this fragment of a larger ritual called The Means for the Attainment of a Great Wish. The light that is “adorable” is the sun, mother/father of us all here on earth. The “righteous” ones for whom the winds blow sweetly are persons acting upon their wisdom of knowing the difference between what is true (the soul) and what is untrue (name and form). In the three realms of earth, atmosphere, and heaven, we pray for the understanding that all is already sweet, and for our benefit. Throughout the prayer that is a poem we move from the many, or All, to the most specific, I. I remember first reading this prayer and thinking of Martin Buber’s astounding philosophical work I and Thou.
This poem that is a prayer touches me in that it is so personal. I am praying for my own sweetness, that I “indeed be all this.” If I am to reach the fullness available to me in this life, to “become the one lotus flower,” I must in some physical way allow the river of honey to pour through me. I must become the sweetness.
In the two months I’ve been performing the ritual of sitting, praying, and sipping the herbs, I’ve had flashbacks to my childhood, made colorful by my tempestuous nature. I was the girl who ran as fast as she could, who screamed as loud as she could, who pinched little boys to get their attention. I vexed my honey-natured mother, who through her own wisdom was able to stay a few paces ahead of me. When I felt thwarted, I hated the obstacle, be it animate or inanimate being. When I loved something, I loved it passionately and forever. The colors of rage and passion painted the landscape of my childhood and now, middleaged, this body is left with their residue: perpetual itchiness and reddened skin; dry joints; chronic fatigue; a heart that forgets how to relax between contractions.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true
This morning, sitting on the stool as the sun rises, I find myself leaning into the prayer, wanting much most to be the scholar to whom this prayer is true.
I repeat the mantra. I sip the herbs. I breathe. The elixir pulses through me, a beautiful radiant juice, and if I breathe long enough with it, I feel the honey moving into the extremities of the body. It’s possible to breathe it through the whole body, all surfaces, all hidden spaces. And this is the magical coming-into-being of the poem to the sun: the text is not merely metaphorical. May I become the one lotus flower: the merging, begun with faith and imagination, may happen on the physical level as well.
All the senses of this body have become heightened over twenty years of practicing Yoga; this is a sign of deepening purity. During meditation, subject and object may merge so that someone meditating upon an imaginary rose, for instance, may feel the petals on her skin and smell the attar as fully as if she had her nose in the flower.
And this morning at the ritual my deceased mother joins me, she who gave birth to me, she who continues to protect me, and I know her by the feel of her hand on my shoulder as I sit on the stool, and the smell of her skin, if even for just a moment. This, too..
Ed. S. Radhakrishnan, The Principal Upanishads: edited with Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes, 1994.