Experimenting with Gutenberg: Photo Galleries

Word Press is switching to a new editing system. It is called Gutenberg. After moving through plenty of resistance, I decided to try it out. I wrote the post about Sreejit’s song using the new system. I think I’m going to like it.

In this post, I’m going to create a few photo galleries to see what they look like.

#1 This gallery has photos from India and from Seattle. Some were vertical and some were horizontal. At first, I had the column setting set to three but decided to change it to four.

(You can click on any of the galleries to enlarge the photos.)

#2 This gallery consists of photos from India that I haven’t posted before. I decided to make it two columns. The first four photos and the last two are purposely paired.

#3 The last gallery uses photos from India that I’ve used before. This is what the three column setting looks like.

I’m liking this new system. I will miss the tiled mosaic setting of the old editor but I like how these galleries look too.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: August 29-September 1, 2018

Amrita University Graduation

Friday, August 31, was graduation day for 1,325 undergraduate, post graduate and PhD students from the Amritapuri campus of Amrita University. The graduates came from the Schools of Arts & Sciences, Ayurveda, Biotechnology, Business, and Engineering.

This year, the graduates and their families gathered in the Amritapuri auditorium and waited for Amma and the other dignitaries to arrive. The Chief Guests, were Dr. K Sivan, Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation and Amma who is the Chancellor of the University.

Procession to the hall

Amma and Dr. Shivan

Recession at the end of the ceremony

I was not able to attend the event, but I had been present when the decorating began the night before. The next day, I discovered that the front of the stage had been decorated with beautiful flowers and there were purple curtains that extended from one side of the auditorium to the other. They were so beautiful that they practically took my breath away. The pink lights that were placed behind the curtains made the scene even more striking. As you can see in some of the photos, many banners had been hung around the sides of the auditorium.

I was able to hear the last part of Amma’s speech. You can read some of Amma’s message to the graduating students if you click here.

So much love went into preparing and presenting this ceremony. I have no doubt that the graduates will remember this day for the rest of their lives.

The photos are from Amma’s Facebook Page and Amritapuri.org.

A New Experience

I have had a cyst on my left cheek for about six years. The doctors I have seen during that time have kept an eye on it but the only solution they offered me was to have it surgically removed. I had been told that the surgery would leave a sizable scar. I would have no problem with that if it was a necessary surgery, but since it was cosmetic, I decided to just let it be.

One day last week, a friend asked if I had considered talking to Dr. Sushila about the cyst. Dr. Sushila is the Ayurvedic doctor that runs Amritapuri’s panchakarma program. I’ve known her since my early days in Amritapuri. I thought it was a great idea, so I walked to her office and was able to schedule an appointment for that very day. During the visit, Dr. Sushila suggested I see a doctor who works at the Amrita University School of Ayurveda. The next morning, I took a rickshaw to the Ayurveda hospital/school/clinic.

Since it is a University clinic, there were students who observed the doctor closely. A few of them also assisted her. That first day, the doctor did an examination and then had one of the senior students make a poultice of herbs. I noticed it consisted of some black herbs and something that looked like a small citrus fruit. (I probably didn’t see everything that went into the poultice.) The student used a mortar and pestle to crush up the ingredients. After applying the mixture, she put a bandage over it. (The purpose of the poultice was to see if the cyst would soften overnight.)

That was the first of five daily visits to the clinic. The second morning, the doctor took of the bandage and then removed a scab that had formed on the outside of the cyst years ago. She then began the process of taking out the contents of the cyst. It was important that she also remove the outer sack because if any of the sack remained under my skin, the cyst would regrow. When the doctor finished her work, a different student applied a new bandage.

That day I had heard the doctor tell the students my cyst was a sebaceous cyst. When I looked it up later, I read that the contents of that type of cyst is a “cheese-like matter”. That description matched what I have observed in the past.

There had been some build-up of that matter overnight, so it was clear that not all of the cyst had been removed. The doctor supervised a senior student in removing more of the substance. She instructed me to return to the clinic for next two days. On the fourth and the fifth day there was no indication that the cyst was still producing the matter.

I was told I could remove the bandage at the end of that day. And, at that point, I could also finally wash my hair (I hadn’t been able to wash it because I was supposed to keep the bandages dry). When I took the last bandage off, I was very pleased to discover that there will be almost no scar.

Hopefully, I won’t need to return to the clinic, but if I do, so be it. The procedure caused no pain, so I do not dread the possibility of going back. Since I used to teach nursing students at the University of Washington, I had enjoyed being in the teaching environment.

I feel so grateful, and impressed, that the doctor was willing to give me this level of attention. I can’t imagine being told to come back five days in a row in the U.S. She had so much patience and was so gentle. And she asked repeatedly if I was experiencing pain. The cost was unbelievable. I paid 200 rupees ($3.00) to register at the clinic and 30 rupees (45 cents) for each of the dressings. That’s it!

Leelas Abound

Leela is a Sanskrit word that is often defined as “God’s play.” Even though the word “play” is used, that doesn’t mean all leelas are fun. They often take the form of lessons and challenges coming in rapid succession. Or they may be a whole series of events that leave you thinking “What in the world is going on?

I always experience an increase in leelas when I visit Amritapuri. The leelas that stand out for me on this trip occurred the evening of August 31. You may remember that earlier on the trip, I made a commitment to myself to not sit in the back or far sides of the auditorium and instead to sit in the front of the hall. For several days, I took every opportunity to do that. While I loved being in the front, I also did too much; I can’t sit cross-legged for long periods of time so my legs hurt, and I was getting too tired.

On August 31, I decided I would stay in my room during the evening meditation and the question-and-answer period that followed it; I would just go to the bhajan (devotional singing) program that followed it. During the first program, I would catch up on computer work.

About the time that the meditation started, I received an email saying that someone may have attempted to get into my Comcast account and that I needed to reset the password. After multiple failed attempts at changing the password, I called the U.S. and got help from Comcast directly.

After the call I was able to change the password on both my phone and laptop, but still wasn’t able to get the emails to download. I ended up deleting the Comcast email account on both devices and then reinstalling it. After that I was able to get my emails on the phone, but still couldn’t get them to download onto the laptop. Soon thereafter, I discovered that all of the contacts on my laptop had disappeared. Needless to say, dealing with this took a lot of time and I didn’t get any computer work done during the meditation and Q&A. In fact, I’m still dealing with some of the problems that started that evening.

By then, it was time for me to go to the bhajan program, so I headed to the auditorium. Once there, I discovered  Amma had started singing earlier than normal. As I walked into the hall, she was singing the last verse of Morya Re. I couldn’t believe it. I had heard that song for the first time during the 2017 Amritapuri Ganesh celebrations and fell in love with it. I have been with Amma for 29 years and I’ve never heard her sing the song before. I was happy that I got to hear some of it, but longed for the full experience.

I was still determined to sit in the front of the room but the hall was crowded due to the upcoming Krishna’s birthday celebrations. I decided to get to the front area by coming in from the side. Perhaps I could sit against the wall at the bottom of the stage. The front section of floor-sitting area is primarily occupied by the brahmacharinis (female monks) and long-term western residents. That would be an awesome place to sit for bhajans, although at this point I knew I would likely be sitting so close to the stage wall that I might not be able to see anything.

I did find a place to sit there and I was even able to get a glance of Amma from time to time. I was content. Moments later, an Indian brahmacharini asked if I could see Amma, and when I responded “a little” she motioned for me to come sit next to her. I was hesitant at first, because I didn’t want to block anyone’s vision, but she said it was fine. I moved up and felt very appreciative that she had helped me in this way. Then a Western resident, who was even closer to the front, motioned for me to come sit beside her, and I did. If Amma had been sitting on the floor instead on the high stage, I would have been about 20 feet away from her. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time singing bhajans from that area… and felt very taken care of besides.

My conclusions from these experiences:

Was I bad for skipping the meditation and Q&A : No

Was my choice to skip those programs a mistake: No, I made the choice based on self-care and it still feels right. However, choices may have consequences and these did.

Throughout this experience, I had the opportunity to practice behaviors such as persistence, flexibility, equanimity, and letting go. I was also reminded that what I need will be provided.

What I will do differently in the future because of this experience: I will come early to the bhajan program so if Amma starts the program before I expect her to, I will be ready.

 

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

Greenbelt Restoration Work Party: July 25, 2018- Practice in Flexibility, Persistence, Letting Go and More

Preparing for and leading the July 25 work party was a perfect opportunity to practice flexibility, letting go, non-attachment, staying in the moment, equanimity, persistence and a host of other values that I haven’t yet identified. At times, the challenges seemed endless.

Perhaps the first challenge occurred two weeks before the event when I fell while working in the Greenbelt. I found myself dealing with bruised ribs… again. I’ve done my best to stay conscious of my feet while walking on the sloped, uneven land but clearly I wasn’t staying conscious enough. As the work party approached, I purchased a walking stick, something I’d considered doing for a long time, and bought a good pair of hiking shoes. I also threw away the very old tennis shoes that I had been wearing the day I fell. I had known they didn’t give my feet enough support but they were so comfortable and easy to slip on. It felt good to take care of myself by discarding them.

Based on past experience, I expected we would have around 15 students from the UW Introduction to Environmental Science class. I felt very grateful when two of our regular volunteers agreed to be team leaders. Then, I was told that someone I had met in the past had moved to Washington. I discovered that he has lots of experience doing this kind of work. When I told him about the event, he was very interested in helping. So, counting me, we had four staff. Hooray!

That changed when one team leader got sick and it became obvious he wasn’t going to be able to come and another let me know she couldn’t participate. Then the third had a conflict and would only be able to come for part of the time. That left me as the only leader that would be present the whole time.

The day before the work party, we only had two students registered. Another registered that evening. I was surprised that we were going to have such a small work party, but with such a limited number of staff I knew it was for the better. Besides it is fun to have a tiny group from time to time.

Another challenge that we would have to deal with was hot weather. I’m used to having work parties planned out in great detail. When I discovered it would be in the high 80’s or low 90’s that day, I realized I would have to be prepared to let go of my “plans” and instead to practice flexibility and letting go. We would have to work wherever there was shade as it would be too hot to work in the sun. (Most of the work I had planned would have been in direct sunlight.)

Since this work party would be from 1 to 4 pm, I waited until the morning of the event to buy food for snack time. When I got into my car, I used the handle to shut the door and it broke off. I went back in the house to ponder the situation. When I returned to the car, I discovered that in addition to the broken handle, the driver’s door was locked and wouldn’t open. Because of my injured ribs, I couldn’t move into the driver’s seat from the back seat or from the passenger seat. I couldn’t believe it. I decided snack time would have to consist of what I already had in the house, uninteresting as it might be.

Several hours before the beginning of the work party, I set out directional signs on 25th Avenue South, on the Hanford Stairs and on Cheasty Boulevard. As I walked down the stairs going towards Cheasty, I noticed there was a police car parked nearby. And to the north of it, there was yellow tape blocking the road.

Since that was the way the students who took the light rail would be arriving, I walked down the stairs to get a closer look. Once there, I learned that a big tree had fallen during the night and it had knocked down power lines. I told the policewoman that people would be coming to a work party in a few hours and would be walking along that road. She told me that the repair work would take most of the day but assured me that the students would be allowed to walk through. I was still concerned. What if the students saw the tape stretched across the road and didn’t know what to do. Would they turn around and go home? I walked back to my house and sent out notices by voicemail and email.

Shortly before the work party was to begin, I walked towards the stairs again. I could hear, and soon could see, that there were  students sitting on the stairs. I thought they might be the UW students I was expecting. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were smoking. When they saw me, they ran away. I realized they were not here for the work party and that they were probably students from a nearby high school who were on their lunch break . They probably ran away because they were caught smoking, but I also laughed to myself when I thought how weird it must have seemed to have an older woman who was wearing a sun hat and an orange safety vest and holding a long walking stick come out of the forest.

Finally, it was almost time for the work party to begin. One of the  students came early, so he helped me bring the rest of the supplies into the site. Then the other team leader and the rest of the students arrived… and then a surprise… a fourth person, who had seen the work party on an event calendar joined us. I had wondered if there would be participants who would decide not to come because of the heat. Not only did everyone who had signed up show up but we had an additional person!

We started working in areas that had already been planted, removing wood chips that were touching the stems of the plants as well as digging out invasive blackberries, ivy and bindweed that was sprouting. (We put wood chips throughout the planting areas to hold in moisture and reduce weed growth. The wood chips are not supposed to touch the plant however, so we attempt to keep the space around the plant cleaned out. We refer to that empty space as a “donut hole”. ) As we finished one area, we moved to another, following the shade as much as possible. Every planting area looked so much better after we finished taking out the invasive blackberries and bindweed, and cleaning out the donut holes.

I didn’t remember to take photos during the first part of the work party, but this is what some of the planting areas looked like after we worked on them.

 

And these photos were taken later.

 

After the break, we all moved to the Greenbelt site that is north of our main site. We started by moving a drying rack that had accidentally been constructed in the place where future wood chip piles would go. I was amazed to see that the blackberry canes and other invasive plant cuttings that had been placed on it were already dry. We used that dried debris in constructing the new rack.

[Note: We place the blackberry canes, blackberry root balls, ivy and bindweed on drying racks so that they don’t touch the ground and re-root. The increased airflow that results from having them off of the ground also speeds up the drying process.]

We will be removing a lot more blackberry vines and root balls from this area. It is good to have a new rack ready to receive them.

There was a truck parked in the area I had planned to clear next, but the sun was also there, so we moved further  into the Greenbelt instead. It was still hot there, but there was a lot of shade, and a slight breeze.

We cleared an area of blackberries so that we could build another rack there. Once that rack was complete, the students continued digging out blackberries. We also started pulling out ivy. All of the cuttings were placed on the new rack.

 

Ten to fifteen years ago, many evergreen trees were planted in this part of the Greenbelt. I have been very eager to start freeing them from the invasive vines that had grown over them since then. We began working on one of those trees at this work party. There is much more to do before the tree is fully free, but we made considerable progress. (If you click the gallery to enlarge the photos…. and look closely…. you may be able to see that there is less ivy under and going up the tree!)

 

Even though the area was shady, we were all tired from working in the heat so stopped a bit sooner than we would have under normal conditions. After putting the tools and other supplies away, we gathered on the stairs to celebrate our achievements and to take a group photo.

Once again, we had accomplished so much in a short period of time. It was another big step in returning this land to the healthy forest it once was.

Not only did I enjoy leading another work party, but I had also survived a myriad of challenges and had had an abundance of opportunity to practice flexibility, letting go, non-attachment, staying in the moment, equanimity, persistence and more. While I know that these experiences will help me grow, I hope the frequency of the challenges will slow down for a while!

Letting Go of Suffering- Week Fifteen: Changing Your Suffering Profile

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Suffering patterns often become rigid. Simply thinking about a topic that has brought you pain in the past, might trigger you into suffery behavior. One technique that may be helpful in breaking those patterns is to change your suffering profile.

In Week 2 of this series, each participant identified their personal suffering profile.  They did that by examining the following areas:

  • The time of day I usually suffer (e.g. morning, afternoon, evening).
  • Where I usually suffer (e.g. home, work, bedroom, basement).
  • The people with whom I usually suffer (e.g. husband, friend, employer).
  • The day of the week I usually suffer (e.g. Saturday, Monday).
  • The messages I usually give myself when I suffer (e.g. Nobody loves me, I can’t do anything right).
  • Where in my body I usually feel my suffering (e.g. head, stomach, chest).
  • Time of year I usually suffer (e.g. holidays, birthday).
  • What I usually suffer about (e.g. my children, my family, work).

If you completed that original assignment, go back and look at your answers. If you did not write down you responses, or if this is the first time you have learned about a suffering profile, then create it now. You can either use the list above, or go back to the original assignment and use the diagram.

Once you have identified, or reviewed, your suffering profile, you are ready to start this week’s assignment.

Each day this week, whenever you are tempted to suffer, go ahead and suffer! But this time, be sure you are suffering in different ways than those you identified in your profile. For example, if your profile is to suffer about work, at home, during the evening, with your husband, an alternative could be to choose to suffer about your yard, with a supportive friend, during the day, on a walk.

If nothing is bothering you, then intentionally find something to suffer about, so that you have multiple experiences of changing your profile.

Take a few minutes each day to journal about your experience.

Day 1

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Day 2

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Day 3

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Day 4

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Day 5

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Day 6

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Day 7

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See you next Monday for the sixteenth lesson.

To find the lessons in this series that have already been published, click here.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

 

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: January 10-13, 2017

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Nearing the end of my trip

In an attempt to prevent a last minute rush, I started sorting through my belonging early in the week. I put anything I wanted to keep, but didn’t want to take with me, into two small trunks, washed clothes and towels, and began to clean. My flat is used by ashram guests throughout the year, so it is important that the room is prepared for them.

I spent as much time as I could with Chaitanya and Sreejit, which isn’t easy since they are both working in their respective jobs most of the time. I could tell that they were going out of their way to be with me too, which was very nice.

Lunch with Amma

Tuesday was the day that Amma serves lunch to everyone. I love the new process that has been implemented this year. Instead of thousands of people getting their plate directly from Amma, she passes the food to some people near her and then the food is distributed to everyone through a series of human chains that weave throughout the room. I have really enjoyed being part of one of those chains each week.

Stage sevas

I made sure that I joined the prasad-giver line on the last two darshan days, and on Thursday I also signed up for a prasad passing shift. I am so grateful that I have realized that I need to increase the amount of time I spend near Amma. I plan to start doing more of the stage sevas next year.

Darshan

The public darshan programs on Wednesday and Thursday were both in the temple. That has happened so many times on this trip. I love, love, love it. It not only brings back good memories from the past, but, for me, creates an increased sense of intimacy. My last darshan (hug) was wonderful. I felt like she held me forever. A wonderful ending for that part of my trip.

Canoe

I have continued to use the canoe to cross the backwaters. It has been such a good gift to myself. I feel so peaceful as we glide across the water.

An unexpected ending

It was a good thing I had been getting ready to go all week because my last day had an ending that was far different from the one I had “planned.”

In one of my last posts, I mentioned that I was going to meet with someone review and ask questions about the Amrita Serve Garden photos. When I did that, I learned that I had not been at the correct garden, instead I had apparently stopped at a private farm where tapioca, bananas and coconuts were grown! When I described the route I had taken, he said if I had gone a little further on the second path, I would have seen it. I decided I would go there on my last day.

So Friday morning, I went to see the Amrita Serve garden. It is a demonstration garden that will be used to show Indian visitors ways they can raise food in small spaces. I saw avocados, sweet potatoes, tapioca, papayas and many other plants and trees. I took lots of photos.

Adjacent to that garden is a seed producing farm. I learned so much there and saw so many fascinating things. It is going to take me more time to put that experience into words. I took lots of photos there too.

Those two experiences took most of the morning. In the afternoon, I decided to go to a garden that is close to the ashram. I was stunned to see how much everything had grown during the last year. I could barely recognize the place. When the sevite who is in charge took me around, she showed me an area where they are not doing any watering. There are compost piles throughout and those piles produce enough water to sustain the water-less garden. She said the plants in that area grow slower than the others, but they remain green and healthy. I took pictures there as well.

I then walked back to the ashram, picked up my passport from the International Office and went to Saraswati garden to say goodbye to the staff. It was there that I discovered my phone was missing, and with it, all of the photos I had taken that day and the three preceding days. I was in shock. I had just used it. I retraced my steps to no avail; I couldn’t find it anywhere. It was like it had disappeared into thin air.

When Amma was at the beach that night, she talked about detachment as a process of being able to deal with anything that comes our way in the process of life. (That is my understanding of her words, not an exact translation.) I was certainly receiving a BIG lesson in detachment.

I probably had dropped it somewhere between the water-less garden and the ashram. That path wound through many different areas of the village. Before and after bhajans, I walked to all the places in the ashram where the phone could have been turned in, but no one had seen it.

It is probably safe to say that the phone is gone, although I haven’t accepted that as fact yet. I’m still hoping for a miracle. In addition to the lesson in detachment, my Fitbit showed I had walked 18,000 steps during the day.

Since the phone is missing, I won’t be able to share any pictures of the most recent gardens/farms I visited. That will have to wait until next year. When I write more about the seed saving garden I will see if I can find some online photos that show some of the interesting plants I saw.

It was 10 p.m. before I returned to my room to complete the packing and cleaning. Soon I was ready for my last night of sleep in Amritapuri.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 31, 2016- January 1, 2017

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Choices Have Consequences

On New Year’s Eve, I decided to go to bed just before midnight rather than stay up for the end of the Amritapuri, New Year’s celebrations. When I heard the next day about the things I had missed because of that decision, I felt a bit sad.

The entertainment continued for a while after I went to my room. When it was finished, a video of Amma’s Christmas message was shown. The translation of her talk was projected onto many different screens. I know it was shown in English, French, German, Russian, and Malayalam. There may have been other languages as well. If you would like to see a transcript of Amma’s talk, you can find it here.

By the time the entertainment program and the talk were done, Amma had finished giving darshan. (Darshan lasted until 1:00 a.m. That meant she had given hugs for 14 hours with only a ten-minute break.)  Amma then led a meditation and sang three songs. I know two of them were favorites of mine; I haven’t heard what the third one was.

The name of the first song starts with Kushiyom. Amma introduced it a few days before the 2004 tsunami. The song ends with the Lokah Samastha peace chant. I couldn’t find a recording of the whole bhajan, but I did find one of Amma singing the Lokah Samastha part. The video was recorded days after the tsunami hit the village where the ashram is located. It was a time of so much destruction and grief.

The last song Amma sang is the bhajan I find to be the most celebratory of all of them, Mata Rani. This video is a favorite of mine.

Amma returned to her room at 2 a.m. Sweet pudding was distributed to the devotees afterwards. If I had stayed for the entire program, I wouldn’t have gone to bed before 2:30 or 3:00 a.m.

While I felt sad, particularly about having missed those two songs, I knew I had made the right choice. I had been so tired that night and was also feeling very chilled. I had gone to my room to get a long sleeve shirt earlier in the evening and, as weird as it may sound, I also wrapped myself in a double layer fleece blanket.

While it was a bit windy and the fans in the auditorium were blowing, I could tell the the temperature didn’t justify the level of cold that I was feeling. I had the same experience before I got sick last week and also one week here last year.

I fell asleep the moment I laid down and didn’t even hear the sound of the loud firecrackers from the village across the backwaters.

So yes, choices have consequences. In this case I felt sad about what I missed, but when I woke up on Sunday morning, I was awake and healthy, and able to enjoy New Years Day. I was very glad I had chosen to sleep.

So many lessons

Since I knew I would be missing time with Amma by going to bed early on New Year’s Eve, I made sure I had time with her during the day.

Several years ago, Amma created a plan that gave all of the Western visitors and residents the opportunity to sit on the stage with her for 30 minutes on each darshan day. (The Indian residents have a similar opportunity but I don’t know much about their structure.)

Soon after I arrived in Amritapuri on this visit, Amma changed the length of the sitting shift to 45 minutes.  On New Years Eve, I made sitting on the stage a priority. I didn’t think I could sit cross-legged for 45 minutes and was prepared to leave early, but I ended up staying for the whole time!

Later in the day, I joined the prasad line. As I went through that process, it occurred to me I have mentioned in past posts that the prasad-giver hands Amma the candy and ash that she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug, but I haven’t said anything about what that experience is like, other than I love doing it.

It took two hours for me to make it to the front of the line. Once there, I began handing Amma the prasad. We give her a group of three packets at a time, each containing ash and a piece of candy. It is essential that we keep our eyes focused only on Amma’s hand at all times, because if we start watching her, we would be very likely to miss the cue that she is ready to receive more packets from us.

When Amma is ready for the packets, she opens her hand a certain way. Sometimes, she may want even more of them. In  that case she opens her hand a little wider and we give her three more, i.e. six packets in total. Occasionally, Amma’s hand is an easy reach and sometimes it is further away.

The process is further complicated by the fact that Amma often moves her hands when she talks with people, so you may think it is time to hand her the packets when in fact she is just gesturing to make a point. She may also reach to a nearby plate to pick up extra candy, a banana, an extra ash packet or a variety of other things.

This time, there were a few other factors to take into account. Whenever Amma is on stage there are many people around her. The prasad-givers have some designated space but it is small. When I was next to Amma, there was a boy around 10 years old who came to her crying. She held and talked to him a bit and then asked him to sit behind her. He took half of the space of the person who times the prasad-givers’ two minute shifts. When the timer moved to make room for him, she had no choice but to take part of my limited space!

Then, a woman in a white sari stood over me talking with Amma. The end of her sari flapped in front of me. That meant I couldn’t even see Amma’s hand. So I was trying to hold the woman’s sari away from me, ducking low to get some kind of view of Amma’s hand, and attempting to get the packets into her hand in the correct way and at the correct time. (Sometimes I think Amma is setting all of this up to play with me!)

When my two minutes were up, the timer tapped me. It is always hard to exit quickly so the next person can get into place before Amma wants more prasad. Once I get out of that person’s way I have to navigate around a fan and a whole lot of people who are sitting on the stage, without stepping on someone. I left laughing at the leelas and celebrating that I had been able to stay focused throughout all of these challenges.

I believe everything happens for a reason and that we can learn from every experience. In the two hours I was in line, and in the two minutes I had handed Amma prasad, I could see that I had been given lessons in patience, focus, flexibility, letting go, equanimity and no doubt many other things. Amma teaches us through her every action.

 

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Is My Path Taking a Turn?

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My favorite joke, and the only one I ever remember, is: Q: Do you know how to make God laugh? A: Tell him your plans for your life.

I think that is so true. There have been many turns in my life that I would have never predicted. If someone had told me those changes were coming, I would have said they were crazy. The most notable example is my relationship with Amma

At the time I met her, I had described myself as being somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist for 20 years. In those days, even hearing the word God made me feel sick to my stomach. I was a very logical, head based person and had no interest in spirituality or spiritually minded people.

In 1989, a new friend told me there was a woman saint coming to Seattle soon and invited me to attend her programs. My mind said NO but what came out of my mouth was OK.

My whole life changed the night I met Amma. Six weeks later, I was at her New Hampshire retreat and six months later I was in India. I have gone to India 26 times since that first visit. I have had other life plans change in unexpected ways since then, but none were as remarkable as that one.

On May 31 of 2017, I “plan” to retire. That is the time of year that Amma begins her annual North American tour so I have “planned” to attend some of those programs and then go to Amritapuri from mid-August until mid-January. I don’t remember when I developed this “plan”, but I think it has been firmly ingrained in my mind since I was in India this time last year.

One day in August of this year, though, I woke up thinking that I wasn’t going to watch another tree in the lot behind my house die. Al,  my former husband, and I had bought that property in 1973. I sold it in the mid-80’s and it changed hands again about ten years later. When Seattle formed the Cheasty Greenbelt, that owner sold it to the city.

The property was originally beautiful but none of the subsequent owners did anything with it, so blackberries, ivy, morning glories and bamboo took over. Smothered by the invasive plants, many trees died.

After I had that early morning thought, I grabbed my shears and started to work. I enlisted my friend, Ramana, to help clear some of the land. While Ramana worked on the major clearing, I focused on freeing specific trees.

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I found so many beautiful and fascinating things on the land and know that there are many more buried under the remaining blackberries.

One day, it occurred to me that we could make this project a GreenFriends project. (GreenFriends is the environmental arm of Embracing the World, Amma’s network of humanitarian projects.) I called the people in our satsang who have coordinated our tree planting and habitat restoration work in the past. They were very interested in being involved. In October and November, they spent some time working on the lot with me.

We also talked with the Green Seattle Partnership about becoming one of their volunteer groups. In March, we will take the Green Seattle Partnership Forest Steward orientation. Once we do that, we will be able to host larger work parties.

Our project will be supervised by the Seattle Parks Department and the city will provide the saplings and other greenery that we will eventually plant there. The Park Department will do any work that requires power tools. If there is enough interest in the project, we may decide to clear all four lots that are in that strip of Greenbelt!

I feel a great deal of passion about this work and it has been on my mind since I’ve been in Amritapuri. Even before I left Seattle, it occurred to me that August and September would be prime time for working on that land and if I was in Amritapuri, I wouldn’t be available to organize the work.

I have an ever growing sense that I won’t be going to Amritapuri in August and that my path is taking a turn that gives working with nature more priority than spending extra time in India.

Starting last week, I found another thought creeping into my mind. I have kept close track of world events via CNN throughout this trip. I’m beginning to wonder if I will even make it to India next year. It seems like there is so much potential for war.

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My years with Amma have taught me a lot about staying in the moment and not holding on to  plans. They have also taught me that Amma will hold me close to her no matter what comes my way. I trust that my life will unfold as it is supposed to and acknowledge that I have no idea what that will look like. What I do expect is that I will be participating in at least part of the Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu chant for world peace that will be held in the Amritapuri temple from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on January 1.

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy.
Peace, Peace, Peace

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Path

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 23-25, 2016

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Be Like a Bird Perched on a Dry Twig

I’ve mentioned before that Amma teaches us to be like a bird perched on a dry twig, ready to fly at any moment. That lesson has been front and center for the play cast during the last three years.

Five or six years ago, when the play was on a darshan day, Amma said to hold it on the auditorium floor since she would be using the main stage for darshan. The participants built a small stage for the performance.

In December of 2014, Christmas Eve was again on a darshan day. Since the cast believed the play would be on the auditorium floor again, they were very creative in how they built the stage. It had three levels so that three scenes could take place at once.

Amma is asked where she wants to hold the play 3-5 days before the event. In 2014, they were shocked when she said that she wanted them to perform it on the main stage. She would finish darshan early, and watch it with us. While everyone was delighted that Amma wanted to watch, they only had 72 hours to adjust all the backdrops and choreography to fit on the smaller stage.

In 2015, the play was once again on a darshan day. While they knew they couldn’t count on it, they planned for the play to be on the main stage since Amma had wanted it that way the previous year. Days before the performance, she told them they would need to use the auditorium floor since she would be giving darshan on the stage. Everyone flew into action, building a stage for the auditorium floor and adjusting everything that needed to be adjusted. That year they just took it in stride, seeing it as the opportunity for growth that it was meant to be.

The December 2016 play would normally have been on a non-darshan day but,  since it was a Leap Year, it ended up being on a Saturday, another darshan day. This time the play was planned so it would fit on either the stage or the auditorium floor. The leaders kept in mind that Amma could come up with an unexpected third alternative and that is exactly what she did. When asked where the play should be held, Amma informed them she would let them know on the day of the program.

While they were jolted by this response, they went on preparing the play, envisioning it in both places. The day before the event, thinking Amma, because of the size of the crowd, would most likely choose to hold the play on the auditorium floor, they installed the lighting and the backdrop. The gigantic backdrop was rolled and hoisted 30-40 feet above the auditorium floor.

On Christmas Eve morning, Amma was asked once again where she wanted the performance. She said she would decide later in the day. They still didn’t have a definitive answer at 6:00 p.m.

It soon became obvious that Amma wanted to see the play with us, so the backdrop and the lights were taken down around 7 p.m. I heard that it took 30 people to remove the huge structure of lights and carry it to the main stage. Both items were then reinstalled on the stage, while Amma was giving darshan.

Soon the cast were in their make up and  costumes. All the props were ready to be put on the stage. Nothing else could be done until Amma finished darshan and the stage was cleared.

Darshan was over at 10:30 p.m. It usually takes hours to do the play set-up but they accomplished it all in an hour; the play started at 11:30 p.m. and proceeded without a hitch. The music was wonderful, the acting was wonderful and the dancing was wonderful. Never has one of their plays gone so smoothly.

The cast had handled all of the challenges with such grace, knowing that everything they experienced had purpose. What a lesson it had been in flexibility, persistence, patience, non-attachment, equanimity, and being like the bird perched on a dry twig.

I will write more about the play in a future post, but for now I will share some pictures I found on Amma’s Facebook page today. They will give you an idea of the quality of the costumes and backdrops and even glimpses of the acting.

The story was about Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, with the emphasis being on the loving father. The first photo is of the father, the second Jesus, the third of one of the piggies, the fourth is a village scene and the fifth is of the prodigal son in despair.

After the play, Amma sang some songs and led a meditation. The photo below was taking after we sang a very rousing bhajan. She often ends those kind of songs by saying “Mata Rani Ki Jai” (Victory to the Goddess/Divine Mother) over and over and we respond “Jai” (Victory) each time with arms up. That is what you are seeing in this photo.

If you look closely you can see Amma. (The picture also shows you what the auditorium looks like and gives you a sense of how many people were present.)

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Amma ended the evening by passing out Christmas cake to the thousands of people who were present. What a day it had been.

Prasad Giving

When I arrived at the head of the prasad giving line on Christmas Eve, Amma started hugging people faster. Our “shift” for handing Amma the candy and ash she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug lasts either two or three minutes. Usually the prasad giver only has the opportunity to hand her a few packets. Because she was going fast at that moment, I was able to give her many packets. I had a lot of fun.

I handed Amma prasad again on Christmas day. This time when I reached her, the person who was being hugged asked Amma a question. Amma had lots to say so I was able watch. I didn’t get an opportunity to hand her packets during my time, but I didn’t care. It was nice to be so close to her and after all, I had handed Amma so many packets the day before.

Karunalaye Devi

When I left the stage where Amma was sitting, one of the brahmacharis (male monks) started singing Karunalaye Devi, a song I mentioned in a previous post. Hearing it again felt like a gift.

When I returned to my room, I looked to see if the song was available on YouTube. I was surprised to discover that Amma has a YouTube channel that contains videos of many of her songs.

A version of Karunalaye Devi had recently been uploaded. The singing takes place in the Amritapuri auditorium, but there are also darshan scenes from  her Indian tours. The man in the photo below is Swami Amritasvarupananda, one of Amma’s senior swamis.

Christmas Surprise

The afternoon of Christmas Day, I participated in the play cast celebration. It is always so much fun, and, considering all the challenges, they had even more than normal to celebrate about. At the end of the party, we heard that Amma had said any ashram visitor who hadn’t had darshan during the previous week could come for darshan that night. Since the crowds are so large at this time of year, we hadn’t even considered going until January.

It made for another late night, but it was so worth it. What a wonderful Christmas season it has been.

To see all of the posts in this Amritapuri series, click here.

Living and Learning in Amritapuri: November 26-28, 2016

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The Lessons Begin

After checking in at the International Office, I took my suitcases to my flat (apartment). Then, I walked to the café to find my son Sreejit. He wasn’t there, but a friend phoned him to let him know I had arrived. I hadn’t been with him since January so it was so good to see him. We walked to my room and I became Santa Claus for the first time on this trip, by giving him the supplies and treats I had brought for him.

Being around Amma, or in her ashram, guarantees an increase in the frequency of life’s lessons. They often provide the opportunity to practice behaviors such as flexibility, equanimity and letting go. I received my first such challenge right away.

I will give you a little back story first. There is a long shelf that is located above the windows in my flat. Soon after I moved in, Akshay installed a wood door on that shelf so I could lock-up my belongings when I returned to the U.S. (When I am gone, the space is rented out to ashram visitors.) Eight years later, it became obvious that there were termites in the wood. The ashram is in the tropics, so it is not surprising that would occur. Last year, it became obvious that the structure wasn’t going to last much longer, but we thought it had another year. The day before I was to leave for the U.S., as Sreejit was putting my belongings on the shelf, the whole frame collapsed on him. It shocked him, and me, but thankfully he wasn’t hurt.

Not having that storage area meant there was no way for me to lock up my possessions while I was gone. I had two small trunks that could be locked, but my buckets, trash bins, laundry filter, cleaning supplies, and standing desk would be left unprotected. There was nothing I could do other than put everything in an unlocked storage area in the kitchen. While it was a risk, it seemed a reasonable one. The shelf was very high and not very visible. It seemed to me that the items, for the most part, were too bulky to easily take. Also, everything was prominently marked with my room number.

Now back to my present-day story! After I gave Sreejit his supplies, he climbed up to the shelf and handed down the items I had stored. I was shocked to discover that even though the trunks and the standing desk were fine, everything else was gone. I couldn’t believe it. It was certainly an opportunity to practice flexibility, equanimity and letting go.

I spent a good part of the day cleaning my room, putting clothes and supplies on my shelves, replacing some of the missing supplies, and ordering a SIM card for my phone. I was told to come back the next day to fill out the paperwork to renew the MTS Wi-Fi Homespot that will give me internet access.

I was dismayed to be told that since the next day was Sunday and there would be an all country strike (protesting the currency fiasco) on Monday, I would be unable to get my SIM card until Wednesday. The the earliest I would get the Wi-Fi Hotspot would be Friday and even that wasn’t guaranteed. That meant I couldn’t read or send emails, publish or read blog posts, respond to blog comments, or check CNN for the latest political developments for quite a while. I knew being disconnected from media would be good for me, but it wasn’t going to be easy. This was a big, and unwelcome opportunity for me to practice flexibility, equanimity, and letting go.

Amma

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When I arrived at the ashram, Amma was on her Autumn Tour in the United States. She completed her Michigan programs on Thanksgiving, the day I departed for India, and then went on to San Jose, California for five days of programs there. I think that Amma will return to Amritapuri on December 2nd or 3rd.

I enjoy coming to the ashram before Amma gets here since it is nice to be able to recover from the trip when the ashram is quiet. Once Amma returns, people begin pouring in and the sense of quiet is gone. (I’m laughing. With all the construction, it is never truly quiet. As I am editing this post, someone is hammering rebar in the courtyard below my window!)

It is also fun to be at the ashram when everyone is bustling around cleaning, painting and getting ready for Amma’s return. There is so much anticipation since the residents haven’t seen her since the beginning of October.

I am very excited that I will be seeing Amma soon.

Jet lag

It is not unusual for me to sleep my first night in India, but the second night, and many nights thereafter, are usually a different story. My pattern is to wake up after two hours of sleep and not be able to fall asleep again. This time, I slept well my first two nights at the ashram. It remains to be seen if that will continue, but I feel hopeful that I am not going to have the normal two to three weeks of feeling exhausted. What a difference a daytime flight from the U.S., combined with a layover in Dubai, has made.

One of the benefits of jet lag is that it makes going to the morning prayers (archana) that begin at 4:50 a.m. easier. As I sat in the temple my first morning, it was so wonderful to be amidst the familiar sights, smells and sounds.

Finishing my room set-up and another lesson

I spent a good part of my first two days, cleaning and setting up my room. I also washed the clothes that had been stored for a year in the trunk. I use three buckets, one for washing and two for rinsing. When I’m finished, I take the clothes to the 17th story of the building I live in, and hang them on clothes lines. I love watching the wind whip the laundry around. Between the wind and the hot sun, it doesn’t take long for the laundry to dry here, and there is no need for an iron since most of the wrinkles disappear as the clothes dry. (Irons can’t be used in these flats anyway. They take so much electricity that the fuse for the entire floor would blow out.)

In the afternoon of the second day, I had another opportunity to practice equanimity when construction workers started making concrete in the courtyard below my room. The level of noise was indescribable. I had visions of living with that racket for the next seven weeks; it would have been a nightmare. Luckily, that scenario does not appear likely. The noise lasted about an hour and afterwards the concrete-making machine was taken away.

Changes I’ve noticed so far

There was construction work occurring at the ashram when I first came here in 1990; and it has never stopped. In the old days, the construction noise went throughout the night. Thankfully that stopped years ago.

It is always interesting to see what improvements have been made since my last visit. So far, I have noticed:

There is a new building behind the Amrita Darshan building where I live. The front side of that building will hold the Ayurvedic store and the ashram bookstore. Above it will be new flats. The main supply store (referred to as the Indian store) was moved to the backside of the new building the day before I arrived. It is very nice and has much more room than in the old store.

The new International Office is now open. It is located close to the north gate. The office for renting bedding and other supplies is also in that building. I suspect the top floor contains flats, since that seems to be the pattern for new buildings nowadays.

A few days ago, they changed the big photos of Amma on the sides of the auditorium stage. The new ones are stunning. One is a picture of Amma meditating when she was young and the other is one of her sitting in front of a beautiful forest and next to an intriguing tree trunk. I was mesmerized by both photos.

I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard they are building rooms in the green roof part of the temple. They have been building flats continuously for years, but they never catch up to the demand. I’ve heard that there is still a two to three year wait to purchase a flat.

Last night, I went to fill my water bottle from the water station closest to my flat. I became disoriented when I realized the water station was gone and there was another new building in that area. Originally, a small guest house stood there. I stayed in that guest house for a few days during my first visit to the ashram, in January of 1990. Even in those days, the bottom part of that building housed a print shop. The building had been expanded over the years, but now it is almost an entirely new building. The print shop is still on the first floor but it is huge even in comparison to the one that was there last year.

Bhakti

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The devotee in the room next to me takes care of the two ashram dogs. One of them stays in her room most of the time, the other one is generally free to come and go. That dog’s name is Bhakti. I frequently come home to find Bhakti laying in front of my door. (She is doing that in the photo above.) The tile must feel cool on a hot day.

Last year, I was fascinated to watch her wait for the elevator at the bottom floor. When the elevator arrived, she walked onto it, and somehow, she knew exactly when get off.

This year, there is a new twist. In the past, she just walked down the stairs whenever she wanted to wander, and she still does that most of the time. However, she apparently has trained a few people to call the elevator for her. I was told that she would stand in front of them until they asked what she wanted. She refused food they offered her and indicated in some way that she wanted them to follow her. When they did, she guided them to the elevator. In time, they realized she wanted to go down, so they pressed the button. When the elevator door opened, Bhakti got on. Mission accomplished!

To read the rest of the posts in this series click here.

On My Way to Amritapuri: November 24-26, 2016

Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Seattle to Dubai

I have been anticipating my 2016 trip to Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri, India for months. Every time I go there my life is filled with adventure, learning and renewal. Not only do I get to spend time with Amma, it is also the only period each year that Sreejit, Chaitanya and I are together. (My son, Sreejit, lived in Amma’s ashram in San Ramon, California from 1994 to 2009 and has lived in Amritapuri since then. Chaitanya moved to Amritapuri in 1998.)

On Thanksgiving morning at 5:30, a friend picked me up and took me to the airport. I checked in, got my boarding passes and went through the security line within 30 minutes. I appreciated the opportunity to begin this year’s journey in such a non-stressful way

Knowing I was going to be sitting in the plane for more than 15 hours, I decided to eat breakfast and then walk around the terminal until it was time to board. Within minutes, I saw a sign that made me do a double take. The words on the sign were: Pet Relief Area. I walked by it, but my curiosity got the better of me, so I turned around and walked back to the sign so I could see what a Pet Relief Area was. This is what I found:

I did not know that this type of service was available in airports; it seemed surreal. The first thought that went through my mind, as I shook my head in disbelief, was that this was one of those “Only in America” things. I also recalled a scene from a science fiction movie when a man traveled from the past to the future. He was shocked to see someone who was walking their dog stop to pick up the dog’s poop, put it in a bag and then take it with him. I don’t remember what year the time traveler came from, but if someone had told me back in the 60’s that in the future we would be picking up dog poop, I would have thought they were crazy. The other thought I had when I saw the Pet Relief Area sign was wondering if these relief areas had been available in the airport for some time and I had just been oblivious to them.

Later, when I looked for information about Pet Relief Area on the internet, I discovered that since 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation has required airlines to make relief areas available for service animals. I also learned that in August 2016, a federal regulation was enacted that required any U.S. airport that served more than 10,000 passengers a year to provide a place for service animals to relieve themselves. Most airports also provide the service to law enforcement dogs, emotional support animals and airport therapy dogs. I found no evidence that these areas exist in other parts of the world.

My flight from Seattle to Dubai was rough for a variety of reasons. For the first hour or two, there was a lot of air turbulence. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a flight where the plane shook so much, except for the one I was on in the late 90’s where our plane had a decompression problem, probably due to a fire onboard. After the shaking started, that plane had descended 25,000 feet in about a minute’s time. Even though on this 2016 flight the shaking was due to air turbulence, it was still jolting enough to get me chanting my mantra!

The flight was also rough for me because my back pain had been re-stimulated by the process of getting ready for the trip. I walked as much as I could during the flight so that helped, but I was still uncomfortable. I looked forward to arriving in Dubai.

Dubai International Airport

There is a 13 ½ hour time difference between Seattle and India, and as I’ve aged, I have had increasing difficulty with jet lag. Sometimes it seems as if I spend most of my time in India adjusting to the time change. Just as I begin to feel normal, it is time to fly back to Seattle and once I’m there I have to start the whole adjustment process over again.

The last two years, I have stayed at the airport hotel in Dubai on my way home from India. It is expensive, but the chance to lie down and even sleep before the long leg of the trip has been well worth it. It even seemed to decrease the amount of jet lag I experienced after I returned to Seattle.

This year, I decided I would stay in the Dubai hotel for 15 hours on the way to India. I hoped by doing that, I would feel better when I arrived in India and as a result, jet lag would be less of a problem for me.

There is another reason I love to stay at that hotel. The Dubai airport has untold numbers of duty free shops. It is also full of jostling people and bright lights. When you walk out of the elevator that goes to the Dubai International Hotel, you enter a world of complete silence. I find the hotel’s atmosphere to be such a blessed relief from the hustle and bustle that occurs in the rest of the airport.

I practically fell into bed and then slept for five hours. When I got up, I went to the Emirates travel desk to pick up my food voucher. I knew from past experiences that Emirates wouldn’t pay for the hotel but they would pay for meals. This time, however, when I asked for the voucher, I was told that they no longer provided that service. I had never bought anything other than a scoop of ice cream in Dubai. After looking around, I decided I would order some sushi at a food court restaurant that was located next to McDonalds. I was quite surprised to discover, when I checked the exchange rate later, that I had spent $23 for sushi!

After my second nap, I was a bit groggy. I decided to go into the main part of the airport to find out my gate number. When I stepped onto a walking escalator, and started walking, it seemed as if I wasn’t going anywhere. I laughed, a few seconds later, when I realized the escalator was going the opposite direction. Therefore, when I walked on it, it seemed like I was standing still. Dubai must be like India, where the cars drive on the left side of the road. As I thought about it, I remembered noticing that foot traffic in the airport was on the left too. I’ve never made that mistake before, but, like I said, I was groggy.

Dubai to Trivandrum

My flight to India was scheduled to leave at 2:55 a.m. The boarding process went smoothly. Once I was on the airplane, though, I received an unpleasant surprise. My “J” seat turned out to be a middle seat. I need to get up, to walk or use the restroom, frequently, so it is very important to me to have an aisle seat. Since I purchased my plane tickets in March of this year, almost every seat on the plane was available. I had taken care to reserve my all-important aisle seat. When I picked up my boarding passes in Seattle, I double checked with the agent that I had aisle seats on both flights. She reassured me that I did. To say I was displeased with this turn-of-events would be an understatement. Reminding myself that the flight would only be four hours long helped a little.

I grumbled to myself for a while and then noticed the aisle seat in front of me was open. I asked the person in the middle seat if I could sit there. She said, the aisle seat was her seat; she had moved to the middle so she could sit next to her friend. She was unwilling to let me have the aisle seat. Sometime after resuming my inner grumbling, I looked behind me and saw an empty aisle seat. The door to the plane was shut by then but the flight was delayed, so I switched to that seat. I was jubilant. I was so glad that I had been proactive in seeking to make a change rather than getting stuck in feeling victimized.

When we had boarded the plane, I had noticed that the business section of the plane was bigger than any I have ever seen. I was even more surprised to see that there were only two passengers sitting in that area. Later, I discovered that the plane was at least a third empty. In my experience, the planes are always packed at this time of year. I don’t understand why there were so many empty seats, but I felt very graced. Not only did I get the aisle seat I wanted, but the seat next to me was empty for the entire flight.

 

To read the rest of the posts in this series click here.