India: a journey of the heart and soul
It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light.
These words ran through my head at some 34,000 feet in the air. The date was October 22, and I was on my way to New Delhi, India. The inside of the plane was dark while passengers around me were deep in sleep. Somehow, the darkness kept me awake, as I pondered on the light.
This would be my first trip to India. I sensed an excitement within me. I was ready to explore this new part of the world and, quite possibly, a new part of myself.
I landed in Delhi at 1:30 in the morning. A driver awaited my arrival. He escorted me through Customs and, after a seamless process of luggage pick-up, we were on our way to my hotel. It was 2:30 AM when I walked through the doors of the Oberoi. I was greeted with such warmth and hospitality as a young woman, dressed in traditional Indian attire, placed a bindi on my forehead with a red powder, made from turmeric and saffron. After a warm cup of soup, I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep.
My first day in Delhi found me touring the city with a kind woman named Shivani. We saw several important monuments and sites including: Qutub Minar (a victory tower with balconies), the India Gate (1920s arch and war memorial), and Humayun’s Tomb, (a palatial 16th-century tomb). It was in the evening, after touring these sites, that I had the opportunity to speak with Shivani about her life as a woman in India.
“Women and girls can still be forgotten here,” Shivani explained to me. “Life for us can be vulnerable.” She continued to express her feelings in terms of the lotus flower — the national and sacred flower of India.” Our beloved lotus flower pushes through a muddy and murky pool, bursting out of the water as it stays pure and rises above.”
“That is beautiful imagery,” I said. “If the lotus can find the strength to rise above, then so too can women here in India, and in very corner of the world, don’t you think?” Shivani looked at me and replied, “Perhaps, but where do we women find the strength to rise up?” Her question was filled with deep searching.
As I moved on from Delhi, through Jaipur, and on to the city of Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Shivani’s question stayed with me. I prayed on it as I floated down the Ganges River toward my destination of the Mother Teresa Hospice for the dying and rejected.
As a Christian in a Hindu land, I wanted to bridge the gap between religions and find a place of comfort and of understanding. I found that, and more, within the walls of Mother Teresa’s hospice.
The date was October 31st. I entered through the door of the hospice and was escorted into the men’s section of the building. It was there that I met an elderly man who was sitting alone. He was wearing gray pants and a tan button-down shirt. His feet were in black sandals and there was a tin-plate of food on his lap.
I motioned to him with a gesture of, “May I sit with you?” He nodded, “Yes.” I sat down and looked into his eyes. With a deep sigh, he pointed to his neck. “Does your neck hurt?” I asked. “May I rub your neck?” I gestured again. “Yes,” he nodded. I, slowly, began to rub this stranger’s neck and then took both of my hands and massaged his shoulders. His back and shoulders were tight and extremely tense. He looked at me with such sincere appreciation. In silence, I continued, as I felt my heart break wide-open for my new friend.
“People come here to die, or they are here because they’ve been rejected by their families or communities.” The words of one of the six nuns who care for the 100 hospice residents kept swirling through my head. The reason why my new friend was here, I did not know. I only knew that he seemed lonely, isolated, and that hit me in a very deep place.
After several minutes of massage, I stopped and offered both of my hands to him. He took them and — together — we set quietly, holding hands. Two souls, connected, willing to just be.
Several times, while at the hospice, I walked up and down a red stairway. I thought of the many occasions that Mother Teresa might have navigated these same stairs. Did she ever ask, “Where do we find the strength to rise above?”
In my heart of hearts, the answer that came to me was this: Mother Teresa knew where strength — true strength — resides. It is found within the halls of love. And, on that day in Varanasi, that is exactly where I was standing: in a place that holds the kind of love that needs no grand titles or great acclaim. The kind of love that does not grow tired or weary. The kind of love that sees loneliness as the deepest kind of poverty, and shows up in a gesture of inclusion. The kind of love that cherishes all people — man and woman, boy and girl, alike. The kind of love that sees God within every human being.
I left India knowing that I am more than a woman, or person, or human being. I am much more. I am essence and spirit. The strength to rise up comes from this place. And, maybe — just maybe — if we slow down and stop rushing toward riches and fame, worldly power and status; we might truly begin to witness essence within us, and within each other. We might truly begin to understand a greatness that is not of this world.
It is from this place of greatness — this place of essence — that we gaze upon our neighbor with increased compassion, value more deeply our sisters and our brothers, and do the right thing — even in the dark where no one can see. For, it is what we do in the dark that leads us to the light.
There is a kinder way, my friend. And, we should start this very day.
Onward to essence,
Michelle Madrid-Branch is an author, speaker, life coach, and global advocate for women and children. She is the host of The Greater Than Project, a web series exploring the greatness within women. She is also the author of Adoption Means Love: Triumph of the Heart, The Tummy Mummy, and Mascara Moments: Embracing the Woman in the Mirror.