Resilience

I notice with dismay that an apple tree my daughter and I planted seven years ago as well dead for no apparent reasonas my dear Montmorency sour cherry tree that my friends and I feast from each summer aren’t leafing out this spring. It was a mild winter, so it wasn’t the cold that killed them.

I’m discouraged. Why buy trees, chip holes for them into the rocklike soil, plant, fertilize, water, and prune them only to have them die for no apparent reason? I’d rather lie in the sun reading the Bhagavad-gita.

That reasoning wilts before my wise, pious friend Patricia. Now nearing 60, she’s successfully battled serious cancer and today has the buoyancy and brightness of a youth. Unhesitatingly she tells me, “Try again or try something else.” Her simple words lift me from my defeat. She’s right. Two trees died but ten lived. Why not see that?

Humans are not meant to give up—on trees, problems, people, or ourselves. In consistently, optimistically trying to bring health and spirituality into the world and its occupants, we gain the same for ourselves.

I can try again. And then I can read that book in the sun. And when I do read, the Gita’s words will enter my heart – the heart of a budding optimist – and resonate there, as they would never do for a cynic.

Behind the Scene

Armed with chutzpah and other people’s credit, Marc Dreier, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, hatched one ingenious scam after another and used the proceeds to maintain a lavish lifestyle, including owning a $10,000,000 apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, beachfront properties in the Hamptons, a valuable art collection, several expensive cars, and an $18,000,000 yacht.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PABefore he began committing his crimes, Mr. Dreier earned about $400,000 a year. So, one may ask, why did Mr. Dreier engage in fraud? The classic spiritual treatise, Bhagavad-gita, explains that a person in the grips of the mode of passion (called raja guna, in Sanskrit) has unlimited desires and longings.

Gita Nagari farm, Port Royal, PAA guna is a quality that, due to our desires and activities, entraps us. In the case of Mr. Dreier, after pleading guilty to his crimes he wrote a letter to the judge explaining that he began stealing in 2002, taking money from the settlement proceeds owed to a client. He had hoped to repay the money quickly, but instead he stepped into “a quicksand of spending” and found himself “running a massive Ponzi scheme with no apparent way out.”

When there is an increase in the mode of passion, the Gita tells us, uncontrollable greed develops.

In his letter, Mr. Dreier also told the judge that colleagues and clients were doing “better financially and seemingly enjoying more status” than he was, and he felt “crushed by a sense of underachievement.”

A person in the grip of passion is never satisfied with the position he or she has, covets higher positions and more possessions, and becomes disturbed by not having them and envious of those who do. Then, the intelligence smothered, that person ignores morality.

Or, in Mr. Dreier’s words, “I can’t remember or imagine why I didn’t stop myself. It all seems so obviously deplorable now. I recall only that I was desperate for some measure of the success that I felt had eluded me. I lost my perspective and my moral grounding, and really, in a sense, I just lost my mind.”

Greed, the Gita tells us, is one of three gates to hell, and any action done under its influence tastes like nectar in the beginning and poison at the end.

Mr. Dreier was convicted of fraud for bilking hedge funds and other investors out of at least $400 million and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He commented: “It’s easy to say you would never cross the line, but the line is presented to very few people.”

And it’s true. Anyone can succumb to greed – and have to experience the misery it brings.

There is a bright side, however. Anyone, including Mr. Dreier, who is sixty-two and may spend the rest of his life in prison, can reflect on and learn from the glorious Gita. This passage, for example, could give all of us pause:

“In the mode of passion, people become greedy, and their hankering for sense enjoyment has no limit. One can see that even if one has enough money and adequate arrangements for sense gratification, there is neither happiness nor peace of mind. That is not possible, because one is situated in the mode of passion. If one wants happiness at all, his money will not help him…” (Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s purport to Bhagavad-gita 14.17)

A Circle Completed

The GPS (my gypsy friend) on my dashboard sometimes sends me on complicated routes, promising they’ll be faster. Often I’d rather go the few extra miles to avoid confusion. But overall my gypsy guides me efficiently on this 8500-mile tour of the U.S., occasionally on routes I haven’t considered. And at the end of each day’s journey, when she announces, “You have arrived,” with that wonderful tone of finality, it’s as if I’ve done something noteworthy.

In reality, all I do is manage to stay alert each driving day, a feat I accomplish by almost constant nibbling. Nothing else—not singing, listening to music or talks, observing the scenery, slapping myself—keeps me as alert as nibbling, especially on puffed kamut and puffed corn (both organic). It’s that crunch of teeth on the puffies that keeps me thoroughly awake.

The last few days of the trip I set out before dawn, the big, brilliant moon before me and the sun slowly brightening the sky in the rearview mirrors. Another kind of alertness, an alertness of the heart, is remembrance that God is the light of the sun and moon and whatever happens is his kindness.

Portland (Rainland), Oregon, where it’s fated to rain/ snow every day this week, marks the end of this book tour circle. The camper, parked in the driveway of a friend’s home on a quiet street, feels extra cozy on wet days. Grateful to be dry, warm, and safe, I’m quite certain that in this lifetime I’ll never become a truck driver.the journey's end, March 22, 2012

Ample Space, Divine Opportunities

One of the more noteworthy statements I heard while traveling was, “As yoga enables us to stretch in ways we couldn’t before, so the Bhagavad-gita enables our mind to stretch to accommodate ideas we couldn’t entertain before.”

Recently—and unfortunately—my absorption in the mind-stretching Gita has been disappointing. Although I had great intentions and read the Gita daily, I’ve been preoccupied with keeping my camper functioning, maintaining my stock of books and DVDs, having exchanges and farewells with friends along the way, forging future plans, keeping a wary eye on the weather, and trying to stay healthy and safe.

suburban samenessMy lack of absorption in the Gita may have been due to all that, or it may have been due to my feeling like a zombie after so much driving. Or from feeling suffocated after driving through cities with office buildings and houses so similar I could hardly tell them apart, buildings so close together that children couldn’t play between them.

At Saranagati, where my family and I live, each house is pleasantly quirky in ways just suited to its residents, as if the house and its residents morphed a bit to fit each other well. There’s ample space between them—space that doesn’t separate the residents but draws them closer.

The poet Cowper says the city is made by man and the country by God; perhaps that’s why the mind breathes deeply in the country, expanding to encompass dimensions suffocated elsewhere. And in the country the spirit, stretching toward that unknowable Person who’s within and without, basks in the enchanting freedom of real, divine intangibles.

Appalachian Thoughts

winter forest scene

“A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” announces the sermon sign of the Fulp Morovian Church in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. I have lots of time to consider that statement as I wait in front of it while a mile-long procession for the deceased passes.

Later, finally heading west after almost six months of south and eastward travel, it’s wintry and the sky is a sullen, motley grey. The blithe vacuousness of some of the Appalachian dwellers, the sameness and foundering of their paltry existence and their aggressively reactionary mood pervade my small camper. For the first time since I left home I feel lonely. It’s odd, as I’d just left friends and by nightfall will again be with friends. But there it is, and the cold-cough and back strain I got in North Carolina don’t help. In a rest stop, tight earplugs block out some of the I-81 noise. I sleep for two hours, drive on, the sun appears, and life seems somewhat better.

How frail and vulnerable is this human body and mind!

through the camper window, Tennessee interiorLater I watch from my camper window as an old fellow fusses over a small, ornery tractor while his young assistant whips the machine with a horsewhip. Jerkily, the thing starts its tilling work on a virgin but rocky-clay field.

Deeply South

Nearing New Orleans, marshes, swamps, rivers, streams, and flooded fields border billboard-lined Highway 10. Those billboards, perched so high up they block the sky, ceaselessly blare at me: Eat here! Sleep here! Get gas here! Gamble here! (Those include a toll free phone number where compulsive gamblers can get help.) Get a no-contest divorce for only $499! Cremation and embalmment services available here!

I finally train my eyes not to look up and, after passing car dealers on the edge of town where helium balloons float from the side mirrors of each car on the lot, I’m finally out where I can see the horizon. That vision alone makes the soul stretch. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes,  “The need of the spirit soul is that it wants to get out of the limited sphere of material bondage and fulfill its desire for complete freedom. It wants to get out of the covered walls of the greater universe. It wants to see the free light and the spirit.” Barreling down the interstate, the sky clear, now only electric poles and wires accompany the roadway. Finally crossing the Florida border, I accidentally look up to see a huge, one-word billboard: “PRAY.” Okay, I think, that’s an improvement over the other screaming signs, but pray to whom and for what?

On the side of a grassy hill in Atlanta a plaque tells me I am standing on the same spot where, in the summer of 1864, General Sherman directed the Union army as it battled the Confederates. That summer 9,200 men died here, including the Union General James Birdseye McPherson, whose bloodied body was carried past the very spot where I stand.

As I read, sleek bicyclists dressed in black from helmet to cleats speed by.

Heading East

I had to leave Sedona well before dawn and regretted that I’d be missing the views from 89A North, one of the U.S.’s more scenic roadways. But the moon was out, lighting snow-sprinkled mountainsides and peaks with mystical, iridescent royal blue hues, now appearing, now disappearing behind curves.

My overnight stopover in Albuquerque was near a mausoleum where, to my astonishment, a thick wall with names, birth and death dates, and occasional plastic flowers, held coffins stacked six high. The next morning I again started before dawn, traveling east on I-40 as the sun rose before me, a huge, radiant orange orb that so illumed every watermark, scratch and dust particle on my “clean” windshield that I could barely see. Such bright, head-on light is humbling, I thought, for it shows every flaw and failing. Yet the very light that makes flaws and failings visible is also the light by which a person can rectify them, or perhaps learn to live with them without sorrow and, eventually, see past them.San Antonio dawn

When I crossed the Texas border I half expected to see expensive, shiny pickups parked on the roadside waiting patiently for their owners—weathered Republicans wearing cowboy boots and hats, standing in the open scrub shooting ducks with rifles. Instead, the first words spoken to me in that Lone Star state were from a thirty-something radiant, Afro-American gas station attendant who, smiling and looking right at me said, “Have a blessed day!” What a wonderful thing to say.

I can’t remember any other time in my life when someone has said that to me.