Sunday, December 11, 2022

The Stamp In My Passport

 The stamp in my passport, put there by the indifferent Immigration officer at Heathrow airport, took but a wrist flicking instant.  The next 12 months that followed were some of the happiest and transformative days of my life.  The events that took place would open wide the door to the course my life has taken me ever since. A grand journey which has lasted 50 fulfilling years so far.


I had my 20th birthday just a few weeks prior to flying to London and as I recall now I was fearless about facing the daunting reality that I was traveling to a place in which I knew no one.  Furthermore I was depending, in the beginning at least, on the kindness and hospitality of those who I had never met, didn’t know I was coming, and whose names and addresses I had scribbled in a slender notepad.  

Fortunately I was not traveling alone.  Johnny and I were planning on only a brief stop over in London and then head to Oxford to hopefully stay for a short time till I found a house for the band to live and practice in. The group was called the White Stains and Johnny was the drummer and I was……

To look back at it now from the perspective of 50 years on  the journey and its flimsy strategy  didn’t make much sense.  I had dropped out of college the previous Spring after lasting barely 2 years.  My brother claims that I said at the time that I had absorbed everything that school had to offer.  A statement that can be only attributed to a naive and arrogant teenager.  Yet thinking about it now after all these years it doesn’t sound that far off when compared to the events which subsequently shaped and inspired me.

By the Spring of 1972  my scholastic ambitions had withered to nothing.  I was certain that University was not offering me what I felt I really needed.  What that was was not exactly clear but it seemed that if spiritual fulfillment was not coming to me in a classroom then I would have to attempt to somehow seek it out elsewhere.

I was inspired by spiritual books like, Remember Be Here Now and Autobiography of a Yogi.  It was obvious there was still learning to be done but it would have to take place outside the traditional school environment.  It seemed apparent that knowledge of my inner self was what I yearned for. Yet how and where to do that was a mystery. It is an easy enough thing to teach your mind knowledge but how do you expand your heart’s power.

  It seemed to make sense to get some distance between myself and my home in Canada.  Spending time with my friends who wanted to perform and make music seemed to be the best potential option. If I could contribute by finding a home, for all the later to arrive band members all the better.  If things didn’t work out my fall back strategy was to head to India to find enlightenment.  Which was based solely on the convenient fact that I had an Uncle living in New Delhi.

Examining the extraordinary turn of events that took place in the first few days after our arrival still appear to me as nothing less than miraculous.  The journey had started off with the disappointing setback that our Canadian departure was delayed by one day.  What became clear only as time passed was that fate had intervened so that the trajectory of our destiny would nudge us into a fortuitous encounter on the next leg of our journey.

After leaving the airport Johnny and I made our way to Covent Garden to test out our questionable unannounced and unknown visitor strategy. I would like to recall that they were thrilled to take us in.  I am not denying there was likely to have been some impetuous youthful celebration upon our unforeseen arrival.  The outcome of which was a groggy attempt to locate the bus to Oxford the following day.  A bedraggled pair we showed up at the bus station shortly after our planned for bus had departed.

When we got on the next bus there were already 2 passengers on board.  A French girl named Ann who was traveling to Islip a town near Oxford to house sit for an American couple and Jimmy Sunderland who was heading home after vacationing in the Canary islands.  
At the time I had no idea how fortuitous it was for us to meet and how prominent a part they would play, in both in the short interval but also in the many months that sill lay ahead

What we soon learned was Johnny’s remarkable connection to them both.  Ann’s father taught french at the same school that he attended in Halifax and Jimmy announced that he had just spent time while he was on vacation with 2 people from Halifax. Coincidently both of whom Johnny knew very well and who he had in fact worked with at a drug crisis center     

It was coincidently a chance encounter that led to a profound and life altering outcome.  One in retrospect that led me to believe that most, if not all the experiences I had in the following year were guided by hands both seen an unseen.  

By the time the bus finally arrived in Oxford we had all become good friends.  Being so close to Christmas there was concern that Johnny and I had no place to stay.  So the 4 of us trekked to the address I had only to find it was either recorded wrong or no one was home.  Ann promptly offered us accommodation in the large house she was looking after. An offer that Johnny and I and eventually Steve ( who came the first of the year) took full advantage of for nearly a month.  

To describe Jimmy Sunderland’s contribution to the events that took place in the year ahead would be an understatement to call them anything less than monumental. For starters what soon became obvious was the necessity of getting a car. Something that had not been discussed or even thought of.  Jimmy’s mother as it turns out had an old Morris van she wanted to sell which I gladly purchased for the grand total of 40 pounds. It was my first car and I absolutely loved it.(I called it Biffo)  It was to be our ever dependable chariot for the full year.

Eventually many weeks later when the band had at last assembled and were ready to perform Jimmy also opened the door to my Welsh experience by finding a gig for the band to play in Porthcawl at a pub called The Knights Arms.

There was of course a lot of life lived between my December 12th arrival in London and finding the house in Hailey in which all of us lived in till late Spring of 1973.  To say in the end the great Rock and Roll experiment didn’t work out is not entirely accurate.  True an invitation to perform on Top of the Pops never materialized and there was the sobering period when the money ran out and we were obliged to take jobs working construction for 50pence an hour. But through it all we remained close and we each grew wiser in our own way.

By June the White Stains had played their last local pub.  Jimmy Hewitt along with his wife and infant son were heading back to Canada.  Johnny, Steve, and myself however were far from ready yet to say goodbye to the UK.  Particularly when there was still so much time left on our passports.  So we piled into the van and headed west to spend the rest of our time left in the country in Porthcawl.

There was no plan, we just went to Wales with the high hopes I guess that it would somehow all just work out, which of course it did.  In the beginning there were some notable misfires.  For example the plan for the three of us to live in a tent on the beach was a flop right from the moment the van got stuck in the sand.  How matters of personal hygiene were to be addressed I thankfully have not managed to retain any recollection.

This is when our savior came to the rescue in the form of Betty Moir who lived in her mother’s home on the top floor along with her 2 children Frith and Luke.  She was adamant that we stay in her front room and not live rough outdoors.  I will always be grateful to her and her family for the generosity and kindness that she so willingly offered up to us from her very large heart.

Frith and Betty

I also must give credit to Jimmy Sunderland, he of the Oxford bus ride who had introduced us all some months earlier on our first visit to Wales.

Now at this time I was undergoing some dramatic lifestyle changes.  Because of the almost total absence of meat from my diet I had become a vegetarian and was also taking fewer and fewer trips to the pub.  I had also started meditating everyday and  it was working its magic on me. I had at last found a technique that was giving me real inner peace.

At some point about now I was getting more and more familiar with Betty’s mother Phyllis who owned the house and lived downstairs with her husband John. Initially she disproved of all the raucous comings and goings of us rowdy Canadian hippies.

Frith and Phyllis

But something between us changed.  In a way that I can’t fathom as the weeks passed she became like  a second mother to me and allowed me to move into her spare room.  We became very close.  She would introduce me to Spiritualism which along with my practice of mediation would be a significant part of the map of my life during those beautiful summer and fall months living in Porthcawl.

Johnny, who had arrived in the UK along with me in December at some point that summer decided to head back to Halifax and finish his degree.  Steve who had arrived in January would stay there as long as he could. For me though as time moved along it was becoming evident  that soon I would have to decide for myself when was the right time to leave.  

I was going regularly to Spiritualist churches all over southern Wales.  Most often I traveled with Phyllis, but sometimes if she couldn’t make it I would drive alone.  Often seeing the tired miners coming home from working long hours in the pits, with their faces still smudged black from coal dust.

As the time left on my passport was slipping away I eventually decided to leave on my 21st birthday which fell on November 20th.  There were many tears when it came to my leaving, probably most of them mine.  I had connected to this Porthcawl family in a deep and profound way. At the same time it became obvious that now a new chapter was destined to open up for me back home.

Once I got back to Canada my life would take a much different change of direction. My connection to my Welsh friends gradually faded. For a few years there was just an occasional letter and Christmas card.  But I just never seemed to have time or the money to retrace my steps back to Wales.  That is until I ended up out of work in the fall of 1995. Out of the blue I was invited to give mediation classes in Cardiff. This was an opportunity I didn’t want let slip by.

My schedule was to say the least relaxed and as my birthday was coming up, so I thought, why not treat myself to a trip back to Porthcawl.  It was a circuitous and lengthy bus trip.  22 years had passed and my heart was pounding the whole way.  When I at last got off the bus so much time had passed or for some other mental deficiency I couldn’t recognize the house.  I walked up and down the block many times but just could not remember the number 10 Churchplace.

That night when I got back to Cardiff I realized that the smart thing to do would be to search through the phone book.  Sure enough there was a listing for Betty Moir which I promptly called.  It turns out she had moved a short distance away and that her brother in law, who was now living in Phyliss’s home had informed her of a suspicious character he had seen earlier that day prowling around the block. She was very surprised and pleased to hear from me after so many years.

Of course I was able to come back and reconnect once again with the whole family.  My surrogate mother Phyllis was still alive but suffering from severe diabetes.  When I saw her again after so many years I asked her permission so that I could kiss her once.  Her reply, why just once.

After this extraordinary reunion Betty drove me to the train in Bridgend just like she had done on my birthday in November of 1973.  I felt deeply the tug and pull of my love for these people and the twinkling mystery of my inexplicable connection to Wales itself. I like to humor myself by believing that in my last lifetime I was Welsh.

I will never be able to reveal if there is any truth in this just like I will never be able to answer the great what if question.  What if my flight had not been cancelled that one day and my passport had been stamped December 11th instead.  In the end it is just another unsolvable mystery to toss into the tangled clutter in the unlit recesses of  my tired brain.

My heart on the other hand celebrates and treasures all that came to pass after that Heathrow passport stamp back on December 12 1972.  The world opened up to me in ways that I could never have dreamed were possible.  My task now is a simple one.  Offer gratitude for all that has graced my life these past 70 years and be grateful for all that has yet to come.

The longest journey
Is always
The inner journey.
This journey knows no beginning
And no end.
Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, part 24, Agni Press, 2002


Friday, June 19, 2020

200 & Beyond

Its a Saturday morning and my phone rings. On the line is Ashrita Furman asking me, if I might be available to help video tape for him, a potential new Guinness record that he is about to attempt.
It is all very low key, and he suggests that if at all else it would be a good practice. He tells me the record he is attempting today will be for the most revolutions of the (11 1/2 foot inside diameter) hula in one minute. Let's just say I am out the door in a flash.
The question than comes up, as to where to attempt the record, and the not so simple question of how to get the 11 1/2 hula and Ashrita, to this place. What is decided initially, is to simply walk over to Flushing Meadow where the 10 day race is being held and also where Ashrita set a previous record with a giant hula in July of 2005
Vinaya, who is often one of Ashrita's helpers suggests, "maybe there is a record for carrying a 11 1/2 foot hula."

The reality is that it is something like 3 miles to get there. We walk for awhile along the pleasant Jamaica streets and it is decided to try a location much closer. In fact we stop at a small parking lot of a pre-school, just across the street from the Panorama coffee shop. A place where Ashrita has already set some 8 Guinness records.
Like lemon eating.

The atmosphere has been understated, but I am curious as to which number, this record might be, as Ashrita has done so many over the past few years. I am astonished when he tells me that this will be, if he is successful, his 200th. His first was in July 79 and it took him to the summer of 2005 in England to reach 100 Guinness records. Now in just 3 years he is on the verge of 200.

The record for revolutions of this size Hula is 61. He thought he broke the record 2 years ago in Vermont but did not realize at the time that his effort was not within the strict rules set by Guinness.

When you watch this video you can count the revolutions. What you might not hear is a small boy shooting out with joy at about 20 seconds and saying, "wow cool." There will also be a crashing sound as the Hula hits a metal pole at both 53 and 59 seconds slowing it down.
To observe one of Ashrita's record is an unbelievable experience. His concentration and focus are extraordinary. If you click on the pictures you can also see the amazing effort that went into it as well.
When he hears the one minute count and he finishes, he is elated, it appears that he has set a new record by 5, totaling 66. He tells everyone present that he is offering this record to his teacher, Sri Chinmoy. He gasps a bit and says, "that was incredible, it has taken us 2 years to break this record." He speaks intimately about his gratitude to Sri Chinmoy. He concludes with, "Thankyou for your inspiration and teaching me the path of Self-transcendence."
All those who are witnessing the event cheer. Vinaya, who has been counting says, "how is that possible, 36 in 30 seconds." In previous practice the most he had done was 33 and the total revolutions as well was always less than the record, at 61
Now the job of verifying the number begins. A look at the video tape outdoors is not satisfactory, so the team reassembles in Ketan's cafe across the street.
As Ashrita, Bikshuni, and Vinaya check and recheck the tape for accuracy,I talk to Ketan, the proprietor of the Panorama cafe. He has helped with many of Ashrita's records over the years. This will be the 9th either within or near his premises. He tells me, of Ashrita, "He is a huge part of my life. He is an extremely inspiring and encouraging friend." He describes his gratitude and being able to help in any way with these phenomenal records.

After checking and rechecking the tape the number of revolutions is confirmed at 66. He describes breaking this record as, "It has been a journey." Bikshuni is so pleased and says, "this is my first record."
Ashrita also has the record for the most records and currently has 81 still existing records. When I ask what happens now, after just setting his 200th record, he tells me, "we just keep going."

I must begin my life
Once again
By dreaming the impossible.
— Sri Chinmoy

Eternity's Singers

It has been a monumental musical journey, and there has never been anything like it before. I am in awe as I listen to Kailash and his singers rehearse with equal parts sweetness and precision in a driveway near the tennis ground. In a few days he and his group of 22 boy singers will at last complete a pledge that started to take shape 9 years ago. During that August Celebration Sri Chinmoy had invited Kailash to form a group of German singers and to learn 1000 of his songs.

In April of 2000 the group then came to the April celebrations and were able to perform 700 songs. This was done at a time when most groups would have been challenged to sing even 20 of Sri Chinmoy's Bengali songs. Over several days the group performed its way through the enormous number of songs. When the 700 were finally completed and barely before the tumultuous applause had faded, they were immediately blessed with an even greater challenge. Could they sing 7000 songs? I asked Kailash now what this very long adventure has meant to him over all these years. He laughed gently at my question. He answered simply, his eyes twinkling, "I still live."

The membership has changed somewhat over the years. Since shortly after the group formed the number has been kept steadfast at 22 boys. Which happens to be the exact number that can fit comfortably into his New York apartment and be able to rehearse. An undertaking which is as routine as clockwork when the boys are in New York for 2 weeks twice a year in order to perform. Kailash's house is just up the block from my own and every morning, at just before nine, the boys in white clothes can be seen making their way to his house from every corner of the neighborhood.

The group is now made up singers from many parts of the world. 10 from the original group are still performing while the rest have joined at different intervals as some have dropped out. It is true that the great percentage are either German, Swiss, or Austrian, but now they also come from America, the UK, and other parts of Europe. What surprises me when I talk to some individually is the gauge they use when remembering when they joined the group. None give me a date but rather state the number of songs the group had performed at that point.

One day I come across Adarsha and when asked when he joined he says, "I came at 1,500 songs." He tells me that, "it never occurred to me to join." He says that being a part of the group is a very real commitment. It means for him practicing every day from 1/2 hour to 2 hours. It is also not about the end product of actually performing. For him rehearsing creates a unique relationship to Sri Chinmoy's music, of which there are something like 23,000 songs.

In each instance a member will speak of a deep camaraderie they experience with the others in the group, as well as what an opportunity it is to be able to experience Sri Chinmoy's music in such a very real and tangible way. It is not just a test of mental memorization but it is also a divine opportunity to expand one's heart.

The strength of people's musical ability has never been seen as a requirement for membership either. Mohiyan, who says he came in at 1,500 songs and admits to being less gifted musically says, "I am by far the worst singer." When he says this he laughs with ease, and adds, "I feel fortunate to be part of it. You always have something to work on." Whatever their individual musical capacities might be whenever the group performs the audience nonetheless experiences a profound sense of spiritual and musical oneness that defies and transcends ones worldly considerations.

In April of this year the group performed 200 songs which left them with just 100 more to sing in order to complete 7,000. This also leaves them with the rather obvious question of what happens next after having traveled so far together. They will sing those 100 on August 27th, which would have been Sri Chinmoy's 77th birthday. But at this point as I sit with the group they have not decided what to do next. Pratul tells me, "I could not imagine not practicing."

The practice has now finished and I am sitting with a small group discussing the history of the group and what it has meant to them. There is a precision to their rehearsals but also there seems little pressure either, all seem attentive yet relaxed. People come prepared and the songs are sung apparently with ease, at least to my limited ears. I am told however that Pratul hears every mistake and he nods with some confidence when this is said. It is obvious that Kailash is the leader but others also perform significant roles in making sure everything progresses smoothly. Before the practice disbanded, a brief discussion was held, over which shirts the group should wear.

One thing seems evident about the group is that the music of Sri Chinmoy could not be experienced in a more profound or intimate way than when it is rehearsed as often and with such love and care as these 22singers from around the world. They also feel deeply that the music itself is universal and that when the songs are sung they are somehow have an effect on the Universal consciousness. They say that one of the unique aspects of having to perform so many songs over the course of April or August, or during the Christmas celebrations is that they each had to ensure they were always ready to sing at a moments notice and also to be themselves in a good consciousness. I am told, "we never knew when we would sing, we had to be ready."

Bikash who has been with the group from the very beginning has told me many times over the years how much he enjoyed the experience. He says to me simply, "You get used to singing." He feels that it has profoundly changed him in many ways. He tells me that one has to have confidence but also how important it is to listen to the others and also be in a good consciousness.


Some of the Voices

The group will sing the final 100 songs magnificently on the evening of August 27th. It is a performance that carries with it a joyous strength and intensity built on many hours and years of work done both within and without. The last song is sung with such love and joy and grateful self offering, it is almost as if a chorus from heaven itself has touched down to bless the earth.

The Final song.

They are celebrated as true champions. 7,000 songs now have been sung. One long journey now over a new one is about to begin.

The group of 22 decides to continue once again on an almost equally lengthy musical journey. I am told, "Nobody wanted to stop." They have all agreed to press on and accept the challenge of singing 6,000 more songs in order to perform a grand total of 13,000. It is an almost incomprehensible daunting task that will take many more years to complete.
This soulful endeavour will not just be about perseverance and self transcendence but about drawing their hearts ever closer to the Supreme musician within us all.

Performance in August 2000....courtesy of Piyasi

Thursday, January 26, 2017

At The Beach

There is something a visit to the beach teaches me
that I never grow tired of.

I am reminded,
that no matter what we try and create in this world
nothing is ever permanent.

I don't think of it as a such a bad thing at all.
Instead there is a certain reassurance for me
that we can at least leave some mark in the world at all.

It also requires me...... or inspires me
to see a beauty in the small and simple things.

That we can recognize how tiny
we really are in the great scheme of things.

That is not to say that we are insignificant.
No far from it.

For ultimately we have so much to offer
and perhaps more importantly
so much more to be revealed.

To revel in what we discover about ourselves
and our place in this very exquisite universe.

This body is impermanent,
But inside the body
The message of Eternity
And the love of Infinity abide,
And in time
They come to the fore.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Queens Giant

From the very first moment I heard about the Queens Giant I was intrigued.  I am not sure if it first started when I saw some article about it in the newspaper or whether my friend Chris from the Parks department mentioned to me that the oldest living thing in New York was not that far away.

Needless to say Chris, who worked exclusively with trees in Queens knew all about it.  An ancient Tulip tree that had been around for perhaps 400 plus years.  At the same time when he talked about it he was just a little cautious.  It felt some how a little mysterious.  It was though it was right there, not too far away but at the same time as well, not easily accessible.

The city had obviously adopted the rather practical philosophy of recognizing it while at the same time subtly discouraging only the most ardent and dedicated of admirers from coming and getting too close.  Knowing likely that a tiny segment of all those who went there would not have the best interests of the tree or its preservation as a major concern. 

Of course now anyone can locate it on google easily.  The omnipotent search engine where everything and anything is revealed and accessible instantly.  Whether any of it is accurate or appropriate is another matter, and currently part of popular discussion.    Nonetheless a little blue icon popped up showing that the tree was near the cross roads of 2 of Queens major thoroughfares.  Yet it was not clear from the map that there was an actual path that would take you right to it.

I had been out with my friends, the brothers Unmesh and Ranjit a number of times over the past few weeks for some aimless rambles in local parks.   These excursions where inspired most recently by the abundance of beautiful fall foliage.  On one occasion they used the opportunity to focus on photography.  Ranjit dragging a tripod and large format camera around with him.  I was not so ambitious.

True I carried a small pocket camera with me but what interested me most about these excursions was some nebulous combination of companionship and adventure.  Those intangibles that seem to mean so much to our lives and yet we are so often  misguided or ill equipped to be successful in our pursuit of.

On one trip we went to the Planting fields, a park not too far off on Long Island.  The day was delightful.  The air still and warm and of course the leaves perhaps resplendently perfect.  I took only 2 or 3 pictures.  My priority instead drifted towards nothing in particular. I had no plan.  Indulging instead in the spontaneity of just looking, listening, and endlessly joking with these 2 friends of more than 40 years.

It was a day devoid of awkwardness and any serious expectations.  A kind of ideal situation in which old friends can communicate and share without constraints or agenda.  Jokes and jibes flowing with sometimes more color than the fall foliage.  No important discussions of any kind really and yet each exchange had an internal value that somehow felt rich and priceless.

The 2 brothers are unique in both the generous expanse of their intelligence and their humor. I of course have to add that they seem at the same time to be explicitly devoid of any evidence of sentimentality.  A quality I recognize that I just may have too much of an abundance of.   Yet in the easy going chemistry of true friendship it is one that doesn't appear to get in the way of the 3 of us having a good time taking a long walk in a beautiful park.

These walks at their essence seem spontaneous and richly satisfying.  A result that can only come when expectation is set by the wayside and you move forward with your eyes and your heart wide open.

A few years ago when my friend Kalyan was very sick I went to visit him one last time in San Diego.  I was carrying with me at the time a small camera.  The day before I left for home we went for a brief stop at a local beach where I took this picture.

He had been a friend of mine for many years and we both knew that this would be the last time we would see each other. 

I can't tell you now if we ever spoke about 'important things.'  I do not recall our conversation ever veering towards the intangible mysteries of life.  We just basked, in the pleasure of each others company.

Finding the silly jokes and humor of our life experience.  Both of us aware and knowing full well that all of humanity  is attempting as best they can to trudge along. Trying to make some sense out of our world and find their purpose in it.

Tasks which stubbornly confront all of us and which none of us can seem seem to make much progress at.  That is at least the outer world anyways. Then again the inner world is even more vast and incomprehensible.

To this day Kalyan is still vibrant and present in some bright portion of my heart.  And despite all my best intentions of pushing him aside, his rather substantial presence within me stubbornly refuses to budge. Instead I am left with the indelible impression that he will always remain in my heart.  Which is an experience, my natural sentimentality seems to warmly embrace and accept.

Yesterday in Alleypond park Rangit, Unmesh, and I easily found the Queens Giant.  A task that ultimately was pretty simple and easy once we got to the Park.  There is a plaque after all on the fence next to the road near by.

Yet the path, which is a good one, only takes you close.  There is a large treacherous depression that keeps only the most adventurous of hikers from getting up near enough to touch it.  We took pictures as the afternoon light was fading, from quite a distance away.

You have to be very patient and work quite hard in order to be able to actually go over and stand beneath its sparse canopy.  But maybe appreciating its long full life does not require that.  A physical encounter secondary to acknowledging that what we all need to do is simply keep moving, keep finding joy, and keep revealing the sacred mysteries within ourselves.

Life is
A continuously
Sacred adventure
Towards Infinity.