Category Archives: inspiration
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is the quote that inspired the title for my book, The Weight of Silence. To stay silent, to say nothing in the face of injustice or suffering, to turn the other way, is to be complicit in them.
To close out 2014, I would like to share the words of a far more powerful writer than myself: Elie Wiesel. His words show even more, the weight of silence. The words are from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, awarded for his intense, life-altering book Night. This speech was given in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1986. While his book may have been about the Holocaust, the words resonate just as much in today’s world.
And if you haven’t read Night, make that your first New Year’s Resolution.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.
There is so much to be done; there is so much that can be done. One person — a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, a Martin Luther King Jr. — one person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true.
As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame.
What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours; that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”
They love with their entire beings. They have so little, yet give everything they have. They ask nothing else from us other than to be there. I cannot say that for very many people in this world.
Here at the holidays, miracles are often spoken of. With all the suffering and pain and hate in the world today, it’s even more important to find the miracles, and to share them. I have witnessed many miracles first-hand in India: Children who were once lost, found. Lives that could have been shattered, blooming new hope and meaning. In places where there might be grief and sorrow, finding smiles and joy and generosity.
One such miracle can be found in a small girl named Aiswarya. I first met Aiswarya in 2010, on one of my visits to my “other home” in Choudwar, India. After a day or two of seeing all the kids I love so much, exclaiming over how they had grown in the past year I’d been away, playing and laughing and being together — Jody and I went into the baby room.
There are usually several babies here, two or three or four, ranging in age from a few months to a year or so. Most of the time they are adopted, so we rarely see them again on the next visit. After the housemother showed me and Jody the infants who were currently in their care, we noticed a larger girl huddled on a bed in the corner.
She was Aiswarya; Jody had met her on a previous trip. “Aiswarya was absolutely terrified of us and couldn’t even crawl at that time,” Jody says. Now, in 2010, she was nearly 5 years old, which stunned me. I could tell she was much older than the babies around her, but I would have guessed she was maybe two. Jody reached out a finger and touched Aiswarya’s shoulder. The tiny girl turned her head and looked up at us with the hugest, deepest, bottomless eyes I’ve ever seen. They were at once young and old, innocent and wise, tired and hopeful. I have never seen such eyes.
It was clear that the girl rarely left this room, or in fact this bed. We talked to Papa more about Aiswarya and her condition; we were told she had something wrong with her — which was obvious. She could not walk, therefore she laid there in that bed more than 20 hours a day. Papa brought out her medical records.
There had been a developmental delay at her birth; the chart said “asphyxia.” There were doctor’s notes and printouts of brain scans. Other notations from the hospital visits he had taken her on, in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar and Bangalore, said “Unable to walk without support.” “Seizure disorder.” “Dull, poor standing balance.” And most heartbreaking: “Early details not available.”
It was hard to bear the thought of this precious girl, with that strong gleam of life in her eyes, wasting away in that bed, in that dark room. Papa had done what he could, but there were limited resources; very little help.
We took her records with us to the Miracle Foundation orphanage we were visiting next, where — as fate would have it — the volunteer trip there was a medical trip. We had the doctors there look at Aiswarya’s records and give their recommendations for treatment, which we sent back to Papa along with donations and pledges of support for Aiswarya’s medical care.
In 2012, we returned to the Choudwar home with our new group of volunteers. As we walked into the courtyard, greeting and kissing and hugging the children again, we noticed a girl making her way from the sidewalk, walking behind a handmade wooden walker.
It was Aiswarya.
The largest grin imaginable split her face in two. A light that cut right into your heart emanated from those eyes, in joy and delight. She was walking! Assisted, and with a little pieced-together walker, but she was on her own two feet, out in the sunlight with the other children. We were speechless.
On this last trip, two years later, Aiswarya’s miracle continued. This time, she came walking out to greet us on her own two legs. Unassisted. She walks on the sides of her feet and has a distinct limp, and occasionally she falls down. But the other kids help her up, and she runs and plays just like any of them.
Aiswarya truly is a miracle. It is these moments, these astounding strides (literally and figuratively) that keep us going back. That keep us connected, with a thread far stronger than blood, to this family across the world.
And Aiswarya’s eyes are still the most intense things. She will hold your gaze, stare straight into your soul until it feels you can see all of infinity. Those dark, shining pools of brown that you feel you can get lost in. And, just when you are about to drown, her grin takes over and she lets out a laugh of pure joy.
All you can do is laugh with her.
I have a friend who loves India as much as I do; in fact, it was this mutual obsession with the country that drew us together as virtual friends, several years ago when I began reading her beautiful blog, Breathe Dream Go. After becoming good friends in the online world, as well as writing colleagues across the North American continent — I live in Texas and she lives in Canada — I finally met Mariellen Ward in person last November.
Fittingly, we met for the first time in India. In Agra, to be specific. And visited the magical, stunning Taj Mahal together (the fourth or fifth visit for both of us).
Mariellen has written an inspiring new travel book, Roll Out the Magic Carpet. A very unique cross between Eat, Pray, Love and the Lonely Planet India, the book will inspire you to overcome your fears, go after your dreams and travel safely and well in India and beyond. I would like to share my interview with her, so she can tell you about this book and her exciting IndiGoGo campaign to crowdfund its publishing — and, of course, her love of India.
What initially drew you to India?
When I look back, I think I have always been drawn to India. I was obsessed with the Arabian Nights’ stories as child; as an adolescent, I mooned over photos of George Harrison in Rishikesh with marigolds around his neck; as a teenager I loved to burn incense and try to read books on eastern spirituality (they mostly went over my head). But by the time I reached adulthood, I had deeply buried my dreams and passions. It wasn’t until I was faced with the biggest crisis of my life — a deep depression that followed the death of my parents and several other losses — that I resurrected the dream of India, and made it a reality.
Tell us about your first visit – what was transformational about it, and made you want to go again?
I left Toronto on December 5, 2005, and had a six-month tourist Visa, and a return ticket dated June 2, 2006. I had NO IDEA what would happen in those intervening months; whether I would even live through the experience. I truly felt I was throwing myself off a cliff … I needed to find out what would happen. Well, a net appeared of course, and in due time I realized the net was ME. Instead of a terrible travel ordeal, I had the time of my life. It was a six-month long magic carpet ride! I had been through many long years of loss and suffering, and India generously responded by holding out loving arms and giving me a wonderful welcome. I gained so much from that trip — trust, inspiration, a new family, a new career and perhaps most of all, belief in my self and my ability to manifest dreams and land on my feet.
What is the special relationship you’ve had with India through the years?
From the first day I landed in India, I felt uncannily at home. I had a very soft landing, staying at the home of an acquaintance in a really nice area of south Delhi. So that may have helped. But that soft landing set the tone for the whole trip. The acquaintance became a boyfriend, his family welcomed me, and I had a great home base to return to over and over again as I traveled all over the country and studied yoga. So, from the beginning, I was “inside” the culture as part of a family. I never felt like a tourist. A strong bond was formed right from the start. And I have been very accepted all over India, and by many people, including my readers and social media followers. I now have lots of good friends in India, I feel as home there as I do in Canada. But the affinity I feel for India and Indian culture still remains the central mystery of my life. I call India my soul culture. But I don’t know where the affinity stems from.
What is the most beautiful thing about India, to you?
Oh good question! I see beauty in India everywhere. I see it in the colors, the smiles, the sun-bleached landscape and the fabled architecture. I see it in the culture, the mesmerizing dance, the transporting music, the gorgeous textiles. India is a burst of beauty, even as it’s breaking your heart. God poured her soul into creating India, in all its rawness. India represents the knife-edge of beauty, the razor’s edge. You can’t see India’s beauty with your eyes or other senses, you have to feel it, experience it. This is why they say, India chooses you. “Once you have felt the dust of India, you will never be free of it,” as Rumer Godden said.
What is the most challenging?
It’s challenging in India to keep your feet on the ground. A friend of mine said that India sends you on a roller-coaster of euphoria and despair. And it’s true. I am an ultra-sensitive person, very susceptible to the nuances of atmosphere and energy; I have to be careful and work hard to stay centred. If you travel in India you often see very hard-bitten foreigners, especially in “hippie hangouts” like Goa, Dharamsala, Varanasi, places like that. These people look “off,” they are often quite filthy, and have a far-away look in their eyes that can be frankly scary. In fact, there’s even a name for it — India Syndrome. Some people unfortunately die from it; you do hear about people disappearing or jumping from a roof. I asked my teacher, Swami Brahmdev, about India Syndrome, and he said people should not come to India with fixed notions. I have found that staying grounded, and going with the flow, without judgements, notions, or expectations, works for me. I just embrace as much of it as I can, and close the door on the rest. And having a safe haven, a sanctuary, is essential.
Tell us about your new book, and the Indiegogo campaign.
I’ve wanted to write this book, “Roll out the magic carpet: How to travel in India and other life lessons” for a long time. It will be a cross between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Lonely Planet India.” I want to help people travel well in India, and elsewhere, by sharing my story and what I’ve learned.
I’ve learned a lot about traveling in India, and all the various skills that it takes to travel well there — and I want to share my knowledge and information. It’s not just wanting to let people know how to buy a train ticket — any number of resources can give you that information. It is sharing what you need to know about the culture and the spiritual beliefs of India to be able to travel well there. These are the things that make it so challenging and rewarding for foreigners. For example, in India, you have to learn to let go of control. This is huge. If you don’t, you will drive yourself crazy. So, I want to talk about the inner process of learning to trust.
I also want to inspire people to go after their dreams.
Honestly, if I can do it, anyone can. I started late (in my 40s), I had no money, and no support; and I have had a life-long problem with lack of self-confidence. Plus, my dreams were somewhat odd and not very practical. None of that matters. What matters is believing in yourself and the abundant nature of the universe. The universe wants you to live your dreams as much as you do, maybe more. For every step you take, the universe will take two steps for you.
Platforms like Indiegogo help people manifest their creative dreams. Today, most writers and other artists pretty much have to do things themselves — publish their own blogs, their own books. That’s the new paradigm. So I need some help self-publishing this book, and by contributing, people can pre-order a copy. And get other great perks! I am offering magic rings, wish-granting mantras, Nirvana incense, even a guided tour of Delhi and the Taj Mahal.
Thank you, Mariellen, for sharing! I myself am going for the magic ring with my donation.
I never expected to be in India. And without a doubt, I never thought once I had been I would return, again and again.
It wasn’t the exotic beauty that drew me back. It wasn’t the warmth of the people, their gentle and inquisitive nature, their open hospitality. It wasn’t the storied, ancient history of the country or its rich and varied culture. It was not the colors or the spices or the sounds or the spirituality of the place. India is all of these things, to be sure, and I have grown to love them all. But they were not what seeped into my being and pulled me close, becoming a part of me that I missed with a strange emptiness when I left.
It was the children.
They are everywhere. They fill the railway stations, the cities, the shanty villages. Some scrounge through trash for newspapers, rags or anything they can sell at traffic intersections. Others, often as young as two or three years old, beg. Many are homeless, overflowing the orphanages and other institutional homes to live on the streets. I had no way of knowing just how much they would change my life.
From the moment I arrived to volunteer at a Miracle Foundation orphanage, I found India to be everything I had imagined – only more so. More colors and smells, more noises and people, more everything. It was an assault on all the senses at once. There seemed no still or quiet space. Instead there were throngs of people everywhere, living and working and sleeping; hundreds of street vendors lined every available inch of sidewalk, while mangy dogs and cows nosed at piles of trash around them.
Rickshaw drivers pedaled through traffic alongside schoolgirls with their braided hair and backpacks. The smell of curry and incense hung thick in the air along with soft chanting from nearby temples. The dusty roads peppered with potholes were filled with a constant stream of buses, bicycles, rickshaws, cars and cows and rising over it all was the constant, blaring beep-beep of the horns. It was the most alive place I had ever been. India is too big to describe adequately, too big perhaps to absorb in a single lifetime. The country simply wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.
And in the children this beauty seemed to come alive, almost making me believe it was a living entity I could capture in my hands. They are what bring me back to India over and over – to volunteer at the orphanage that was home to over a hundred kids. When I arrived for the first time in 2005, I had expected it to be a sad place, an emotionally wrenching experience. But those expectations had been turned on their head. Yes, there are stories behind each of the children – many of them painful and tragic. Stories of death, abandonment, abuse, poverty. They all have a past.
Yet their hope and resilience have amazed me time and time again; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges inspire me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still kids – they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give – for nothing more than just showing up.
As I sat in the courtyard on my last night with them, I felt everything I loved about the place converge together inside me in that moment.
The smell of the chai, its cardamom and ginger and cinnamon drifting up to my nose, the sound of bare feet slapping against the ground as children ran. The soft breeze that whispered through the trees and caressed my skin while the fading sun bathed everything in an orange and pink light. The colorful painted elephants who seemed to watch over us from their places on the surrounding walls. The vibrant blue and yellow and purple sarees of the house mothers as they passed by and the bangles on their wrists that clinked melodically against each other while they worked. The occasional monkey above us in the trees, or a calf or dog that wandered into the courtyard before being shooed away by the staff. Most of all, the familiar faces around me that made me feel I had come home.
The very existence of these children had forever altered both the person I was and my view of the world. In some ways I felt more familiar to myself here, like I was now the person I had been brought to India to become. I had arrived, that first time two years before, not really knowing what to expect. I had not come to India to change anything about it; instead, the country and its people had worked a transformational change in me. They had allowed me into the real heart of the place and by doing so spared me from viewing it with the eyes of an outsider.
India simply cannot be approached with anything but fully open arms and a willing heart. And it will embrace you in return with an exhilarated spirit, splendor and enchantment, nonstop vitality, amazing people and their daily parade of life – struggles, joys and triumphs – that passes by every moment. I was lucky enough to have been given this incredible treasure by these children and the people of India.
Millions of children in India share a similar story. A life of poverty with no family and little hope. The Miracle Foundation provides these orphans with food, water, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, love, and most of all – hope.