I’m often asked what my favorite experience from our travels is. “If you could just pick one thing?” someone inevitably asks me. Of course, it’s impossible for me to answer the question. Looking back, I love the good times just as much as the bad ones. I love the times when I was scared and sick just as much as the times when I was head-over-heels in love with the adventure. I love each experience for what it taught me about the world. And I love each experience for what it taught me about myself.
But, to tell you the truth, there is this one thing.
I hesitate to even tell the story because I know it won’t mean on paper what it means in my heart. I’ve never told this story on the blog. I rarely tell it in person because I know I can’t do it justice. Here I am already apologizing for not giving the experience the credit it deserves. This isn’t some heart-thumping, page-turner of a story. It was just a moment, really, a small interaction. But I think about it every day.
My Dad tells me that I am on a journey of self-discovery. But I wouldn’t put it like that. Maybe he’s right metaphorically speaking, but my journey wasn’t something I set out on with a destination in mind like Lewis and Clark pointing their wagons west. All I did was simply follow the voice inside (not a real voice, friends, but an internal longing that I call ‘the voice’) that told me there was more out there for me if only I’d be brave enough to seek it. Then it asked for more meaning and for me to try to understand the world in a different way. It kept asking for things and I kept going after them because I realized the voice was the best compass I had in this world. (And to think that it has been there my entire life!)
Anyway, I tell you that because over time the voice began asking about God. Basically, did some sort of higher power exist? I wasn’t raised with religion and I wasn’t looking for it. What I was curious about was the thing that transcended religion. I wanted to know more about that spiritual vibration that all religions raise their heads to. Eventually what I came to believe is that we are all essentially worshiping the same thing, no matter what name we give it. And so I began to define God as that unexplainable force of love that is bigger than religion.
So, this story starts in India. Ha! You probably guessed it.
Brian and I were living in Goa. A friend came to visit and in the weeks of her stay we did a wild tour around the country. Because we both love the mountains we decided to go to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, at the base of the Himalayan Mountains. To get there we had to fly to Delhi and then take an 18-hour train ride north. Since we’d be in Delhi we decided to take the train to Agra and visit that iconic landmark, the Taj Mahal.
Waiting for the train in Delhi, India.
So we went. We caught the Taj Express (yes, the real name!) out of Delhi very early in the morning and arrived in Agra at 10 a.m. We had not eaten breakfast so we stopped at a little café, picked at random, on a busy tourist road that leads to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. I do not remember the name of the restaurant.
We sat at a table near the window. I drank a banana lassi and stared out at the street scene. I was wearing a beautiful, hand-beaded tunic called a kameez that I’d picked up at a tiny shop in the northern Indian town of Burma. I loved the shirt, it was utterly beautiful, but I felt shy wearing it. I wasn’t accustomed to wearing Indian clothing.
My friend, Wendy, and I chatted quietly at our table. Near the door sat a table of Indian women dressed in the most beautiful, colorful saris. I realized that they were looking over at Wendy and me and then back to their table to discuss us. They were giggling. I wondered if they were making fun of my shirt, which I had paired with non-Indian jeans and tennis shoes. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed.
There were four older women and three younger ones. We were obviously the talk of their breakfast. Two white girls, one of them dressed in an Indian kameez, how funny! I was getting a bit annoyed with the attention, to be honest. But then one of the older women, she was wearing a sky blue sari that flowed to the floor like a river, turned to me and said something in a language I did not understand. And she beamed the brightest smile. She had dark eyes, deep pools that danced like light on water, and with her attention directed squarely at me I saw that she radiated a maternal kindness.
I looked up from my lassi as she spoke to me and cocked my head to the side in vague interpretation, like a dog is wont to do.
“I’m sorry,” I shook my head at her. “I don’t know what you said.”
The girl sitting across from the woman, a young, beautiful girl with smooth skin and a round face said, “That is my mother. She is speaking to you in Punjabi. We are from Punjab.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding. The older woman stared and smiled.
“My mother just loves you,” the daughter continued. “She is saying hello to you in our language.”
I repeated it back, the word. The woman with the sky blue sari laughed and the table laughed with her.
I turned my attention back to Wendy. Our food arrived and we ate. The table of women looked like a beautiful flock of exotic birds.
I did not see the woman in the sky blue sari approach until she was directly in front of me. I looked up at her in surprise. She was smiling, I do not remember her face without a smile, and then she reached out and took my face in her hands, cupping them around my chin like you might do to a child. Her eyes danced and sparkled, and she said to me slowly in lilted English, her palms warm against the cool of my cheeks, “You make me so happy.” Hap-E! The end of the word spoken in an upswing, like a celebration.
This is the part that I can’t explain to you. I’ve tried to write this a dozen times in a dozen different ways. There’s no way to explain it so I will just say it simply. I believed her. I knew like I had never known anything before that what she said was true and I was cherished. I’ve never felt anything quite so powerful in my life, before or after.
And then she was gone. And I was left with the most solid, grounded feeling, like I knew that everything, including me, was perfect, and that there was nothing at all to worry about.
It’s been over a year since it happened and I can tell you that something changed forever for me that day. I know, in the same sure way that I know my own name, that I am perfect despite all of my imperfections, that we all are.
It wasn’t until some months later that I realized I’d begun to wonder if perhaps I hadn’t met God in that tiny eatery in India. Because one of the things I’ve learned to believe about God is that, if you are open, God will lead you to the things you need to know.
Maybe that woman in the blue sari wasn’t God. No matter, she is God to me. Because I know what she did for me. And I believe that, should you meet her, God will be the kind of woman who will hold your face in her hands and smile at you with glimmering eyes. She will say, in the language you understand, you make me so happy. And you will know without a doubt, you will know despite yourself, that it is true.
Later that day, visiting the Taj Mahal.