Women by Design: Transforming Home, Transforming Self

Part 3: Morris County and Mayapur

Posted Jul 11, 2015

Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

By now you must be wondering if there are any men in my life.  There are many wonderful men though, sadly, some of the best have passed. . . But I want to make you laugh, not cry. So if you want to chuckle or yearn for romance, I’ll tell you how I guided Cupid’s arrow to hit one man (and me) in the most unexpected way.

What else is there to do to pass time in an oasis-forsaken airport except people-watch?  Seven years ago, on the security line at Ft. Lauderdale airport, I aimed my eyes on Sam. One glimpse at his manly torso, his handsome, bearded face and I could imagine. Enough of that.  I had to throw my bottled water out and turn to silent prayer, hoping the x-ray didn’t reveal things I’d packed that were sort of ok or maybe not.

Cleared through security undiscovered, my baggage still intact, I joined the line at Dunkin Donuts to celebrate with tea. There in front of me Cupid placed Sam. I swear I didn’t stalk him (Sam, I mean, but yes to Cupid) but I’m no fool either when opportunity’s arrow strikes.

“Another line!” I struck up a conversation and soon Sam and I were at a Dunkin Donuts table for two- - on an island together oblivious to the swirl of noise and people moving fast. Serendipity: We were both flying to Newark, lived in New Jersey and were single. We were both visiting our Jewish mothers who later, of course, claimed Cupid’s rightful credit that we’d met.  There’s fact and there’s feeling and the fact that Sam listened attentively, then offered insights between his coffee sips, made me feel there might be something there.

Time passed too fast. I looked with horror at my watch and said to Sam, “Good God! Our flight must have boarded!”

“I’m taking the next flight, not this one,” he explained. Still he ran with me to my gate where I jumped on board as the door closed. Was that the end of that? Luckily, before my plane became a pumpkin, I’d left this prince enough glass slipper info. that he tracked me down on the Internet kingdom.  The next day, not to my surprise, he phoned. 

The rest is history which I’ll only tell in you in parts as they pertain to oases.  Let’s face it. I still don’t know you well. Then, too, there’s discretion which means some books must remain closed . . .

There are many ways people organize their lives.  My client and fellow muse Jennifer, for example, created her wonderful Shangri-La home for herself.  Nevertheless, every summer and sometimes other months, she digs up dinosaurs bones in Montana or finds 480 million year old fossils on Vermont’s Isle La Motte or stays quiet at Genesis Farm “exploring the sacred unity of life, humanity and Earth within a single, unfolding Universe”(1) there in Blairstown, N.J.

While away, Jennifer rents out her house with ease. In fact she became my guru when, after a year, I decided to be a nomad and rent my house out for months on end to live with Sam, then return to Princeton, then pack up to go North again. To Northern New Jersey, that is, where Sam lived in a pleasant 4-bedroom house in a typical, unremarkable development.    

Trading Princeton’s walkable streets and cultural delights for what I felt might be Morris County’s shopping malls and artistic desert wasn’t easy.  But I could work from anywhere and Sam could not. Here’s what I know: One can find happiness in a concrete room with a light bulb on a string with someone you love . . . for a while. With his love and caring, Sam made the bulbs in my heart’s garden glow. But why live surrounded by concrete?

Sam’s home was his place not my or our place, so now I was the woman pondering how best to create an oasis by design for us. It’s hard enough to find a place to nurture one solitary spirit not to mention a sacred cave that protects the best of two. Nevertheless I went exploring Morris County to see what lay beyond.

A New Jersey tomato born and bred, I never knew my state had a Lake District. Did you? At the end of each Summer’s day up there in the Northwest I drove past “Dead End” signs to discover the district’s streams, waterfalls and big and little lakes with noisy boats or canoes abandoned by families barbequing by the water at day’s end.

I loved not knowing where each road would lead, exploring off the beaten track as if in a foreign country. Such aimless meandering intensified the Ah Ha! moment when I came upon “Miss Lotta’s"(2) mansion amongst other lakeside A-Frame homes or Lake Arrowhead’s Hansel and Gretel houses made of old stone.  Some towns exuded an exclusive air via their fancy yacht clubs with old paneled wood and antlers on the wall.  However, most towns I tootled through had modest, non-descript homes made special by overflowing flower baskets on the porch or slow-swinging seats overlooking the water. At each place I wondered, “If Sam and I moved here would our spirits settle and happily overflow?”

Do you consider 'spirit' when you’re moving? What is ‘spirit’ - - oasis - - for you? The way the roads run? The buildings? The people? Nature?  When you read a floor plan, does it label any room “a soft place for the soul to land”? Or . . . don’t you care?  I do.

That’s why, one by one, I started swimming in those lakes. Yes, I could jump in on a humid day and feel my body come alive with each cold splash.  But here’s the trick: I always swam with my head just above the water to breathe but also to people-watch (my hobby now).  Thus I learned the lay of these delightful lands. Yet questions of 'spirit' and 'soul' can’t be answered in a splash and, anyway, I wasn’t sure Sam wanted to move.

“He has to ponder that,” I thought while swimming back and forth one day and then I lapsed into thinking about the other man I’ve known the longest, my brother, Jayadvaita Swami - - “Jay” or “JSwami” for short. He lives nowhere and owns nothing. He’s the happiest guy I know who’s found sacred place in this world, the universe and in himself.

Jay left our suburban family home when he was sixteen and I fourteen. My father was leaving the hospital and needed calm.  Thus when Jay was given the ultimatum “Stop smoking pot or leave,” he left. He drugged his way around the country until he walked into a New York Hare Krishna Temple and that was that.  Always a seeker, he found his center there in a deeper life of the spirit rather than of the “vanity” of material possessions. Now fifty years later, if this spiritual movement were to fold, he’d be the last one to leave and turn out the lights.

How does the son of a decorator and hardware store owner end up dressed in orange? Ask JSwami, not me.(3) Yet perhaps watching our father become the “hardest working man in the graveyard,” he wondered, “What’s the point?” and chose the highway and a knapsack for his back rather than that grueling man-burden. To be honest, I often forgot I had a brother, since he’d left so early on. For years he lived in India (or there about) and then, one day, I decided to visit.

It was strange sitting in a taxi with a holy brother you don’t know, driving for hours on bumpy, dirt roads from New Delhi to Mayapur. Yet it was a chance for my eyes to trace the lines of his long, thin, face, trek back through our histories and try to understand how he looked deep into the heart of things. On that ride (as always) he was calm, brilliant and with a wit that I’d forgotten made me howl.

Before traveling to India, I’d steeled myself against sights of people hungry, dying on the streets but (perhaps it’s an occupational hazard) what shocked me the most was India as a place.  In Mumbai there are no trees.  I mean there are NO trees (or even green) that I saw, at least. So if you’re a development zealot who thinks environmentalists are just “tree-huggers,” go to Mumbai and see what you will get.

In India ‘survival,’ not beautiful streets and buildings, is the name of the game. Thus, too, in places like Mumbai or Delhi there seemed nowhere that wasn't dirty where I could place a pin. Still, as we approached Mayapur, the scent of sacred cows’ dung mixed with incense created a perfume that was intoxicating.

Can you imagine an entire town built as an enclave for the soul? Such is Mayapur, the spiritual center of the Krishna Consciousness Movement. North of Calcutta, over a million pilgrims visit there every year. When JSwami and I arrived, I could hear the drums and Hare Krishna chants but could first see ‘spirit’ in women strolling by in saris.

Imagine a gentle parade of pink and turmeric, navy, mustard, rust- - all fabrics flowing by you with intricate patterns, embroidery illuminating women walking slowly in the hot sun. For me the scene was mesmerizing and I wondered if in times past (or still?) women, themselves, designed and wove these works of art they wear.

The Ganges weaves its way by Mayapur and my brother soon announced, “We are going on a boat trip with a few friends.” I imagined hopping on the African Queen to chug upriver and picnic with select devotees.  The African Queen turned out to be a flotilla with hundreds disembarking to follow my brother, staff in hand, through the forest past ancient, overgrown ruins to hear JSwami preach and to bow at his feet.

Later back in Mayapur, we did picnic on warm, spicy food served on banana leaves- - Mayapur’s biodegradable plates. I strolled with women who were as curious about me as I was about them.  They were amazed that back at my design firm in America, females sat in meetings with men. I was amazed they’d never heard of tampax.   Will these women transition to 21st century Western ways or are they just happy- - Krishna-consciousness transformed?

I loved walking up the hill with my brother as he’d chant and chat about Sanskrit or sentence structure since he was a learned translator and editor by then. Along back paths we walked to Mayapur’s school set in a garden with walls made of woven bamboo with thatched roofs. Further in the distance, JSwami pointed to three hundred+ acres where the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium was being built which would have one of the widest domes on earth, a “shining beacon to all aspiring spiritualists who are searching for answers to the questions of life.” (4)

For most of the pilgrims passing through, Mayapur was not home.  It was a holy place to walk under the stars, pause by a fountain or enter a temple and pray.  For JSwami, going home meant going “Back to Godhead,” a concept I tried to understand.

For months after my visit, my brother and I emailed. I was looking for a bridge between his religious and my psychological sense of sacred self and place. In the end, I had to just accept ways we were the same and different, too. I am not, like him, an ascetic. Although writers often have to “do without,” I’ll plunk down cash for a beautiful purple anything to contemplate from the sink as I brush my teeth. Yet, transcend I have, in lakes, or rooms with glowing lights, when writing here or when thinking about any hells that I’ve kept moving through to find oasis.

So if one day you wake up and think, “There must be more to life than taking out the garbage,” believe me, you are on to something.  First you may need to crash and burn to choose how best to dwell on earth.  Trust me it’s ok to free-fall in the dark down the rabbit hole to then pop up and know that, inevitably, being most ‘at home’ means abiding within yourself.(5)  


1) Genesis Farm: http://www.genesisfarm.org/

2) Lotta Crabtree was one of the richest, most loved and best paid actresses in America in the late 1800s. In 1885 her mother built an 18 room cottage on Lake Hopatcong, NJ designed by Frank Furness.

3) Jayadvaita Swami's new book, Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life will be published in September 2015..

4) tovp.org

5) Gaston Bacchelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 8.

Copyright Toby Israel 2015.