The living room was saturated with the aroma of perfume and smoke, typical for a 1950’s Long Island cocktail party. I scanned the room of usual suspects, elegant women in their brocaded dresses, dapper men in business regalia. However, my attention was drawn to one person in the crowd, Father Kerwin, a Roman Catholic priest. Father Kerwin was a friend and confidant of my parents. He was a fixture at their parties.
Why should a 5-year old little girl be interested in a man of the cloth? I should have been captivated by the glamorous women dripping in shiny bits, precariously balanced on their stiletto heeled opera pumps, but no, it was a priest I found intriguing. A gentle man with a warm smile and an unwavering collected composure.
As a child, I hated church. I never felt the solace that so many experience, I only felt agita. I loathed Sunday services, the choking incense, the half-naked man hanging from a cross, the chanting in Latin and the choreographed movement sent me into a state of nausea, literally. Most Sundays my father had to escort me, mid-service, to the vestibule where he cracked the massive bronze doors open so I could get a breath of fresh air to keep me from fainting.
Needless to say, I was anything but religious. However, during that cocktail party I saw something in Father Kerwin that I never saw before. He stood in a crowd of people, yet somehow stood apart. He radiated an intoxicating aura, something I didn’t see in anyone else. He personified grace and ease. I remember looking at him through the legs of the guests at the gathering, saying to myself, “I want some of that.”
60+ years later, I’m still looking for some of that.
In 2016 my husband and I traveled to Dharamsala, India in search of an exotic adventure. Dharamsala has been the home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1952. This hillside city, on the edge of the Himalayas, has become home to thousands of Tibetan refugees and the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism.
Our hotel was a stone’s throw away from the Dali Lama’s temple. Every day we would wander into the temple to listen to the monks’ chant, watch prostrations being preformed, candle lighting, horn blowing and the feeding of the hungry. The temple was welcoming, even for a tourist that had no idea what the heck was going on. I was met with warm smiles, approving nods and even an invitation to sit and join the chanting.
On the final day of our trip, we climbed the stairs to the temple, one last time, to bid our fond farewells. I stood in the back corner of the main hall, wedged between a room of flickering candles and an area filled with old Tibetan women clutching their prayer beads, rocking in unison on their woven floor mats. Within the confines of the temple there was no evidence of the frenetic pace that lay just outside the temple walls. Inside it felt safe, as if cloaked in a cape of serenity. I wanted to bottle what I felt and stuff it in my carry-on. After a short while my husband turned to me and said, “We have to go.” I responded, “I don’t want to.”
In a flash I was that 5-year old little girl who saw something special at my parents’ party. Again, I knew I was witnessing something significant, but didn’t know what it was.
These are just two examples, out of many, of how I have been drawn to a scene. The more important question is, why?
So what does a girl do when she’s looking for answers? Well, she could head to her local bookstore and find a book on New Age psychology, meet friends over cocktails and share her thoughts, or find a meditation cushion and just sit. Knowing I do nothing in a small way, I have chosen to go on a explorative journey, a mini pilgrimage of sorts.
Why a pilgrimage? There are many reasons one would set off on such a journey. Usually, someone is looking for an answer to a deeply personal question. For me, it’s about self-discovery, fueled by curiosity. Let me make it clear, I am not looking for religion, or some God or deity, nor am I looking for absolution for some indiscretion.
I am looking to better understand my role in the world I inhabit. Father Kerwin was such a random siting however, it must have held some significance if it has stayed with me all these years. Simply, and this is no simple order, I am looking for some rhyme or reason to why I see the things that I do. Why am I drawn to one subject over another? At times I feel I am being lured into a conversation with my subject, but to say what?
A pilgrimage is a solo journey. Personal time and space are needed to do the heavy lifting. So I am returning to Dharamsala on my own this April, in search of, I’m not sure what, but open to everything. The old adage still holds true: Sometimes you just need to get lost in order to find yourself.
In the past few years, I have learned to express myself through photography and writing, I have tried to highlight moments that catch my attention, moments of splendor that many may over-look. My journey is a deep dive into those attention-grabbing moments that I frame, illuminating them even further. Ah, maybe that’s it: I’m looking for illumination!
So, I head off to India with curiosity and a couple of power bars. Truly, what else does a girl need?
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