Two Friends, One a Farm

Anchored in the earth, embraced by the sky

Photo by elias morr on Unsplash

Valerie, the friend with the waist-length hair, met me in New York City. A Hindu spiritual teacher, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, was giving a ten-day series of talks on the Bhagavad Gita there. Valerie had flown from California to hear him. We discovered that we both wrote poetry. For some time, after she flew back to California, we exchanged letters and poems. One day Valerie told me that her poems were songs, and she sang one to me over the telephone. I started making songs too. We exchanged audiotapes of ourselves singing our most recent song-poems.

To the Ashram in California

Eventually, I came out to California where the Swami was teaching a 3-year course in Sanskrit and Vedanta (the scripture at the end of the Vedas) and other texts with the same message. Sandeeepany West Ashram was in Piercy, CA, about a 4 ½ hour drive from Half Moon Bay, where Valerie lived. She would drive to the ashram to be our weekend guest. All visitors would meditate, hear Swamiji’s lively talks, and sing devotional songs together.

During breaks in our course, Swamiji would return to India and travel to various cities and address tens of thousands of people. His talks would present what we were studying. During those breaks, I would visit Valerie on her 200-acre farm in Half Moon Bay.

A couple from Marin County had gifted the ashram with peafowl — a cock and hen. The cock was carried off and eaten. The guys said a pack of wolves had done it. After that, the hen lived in a cage for protection, and the same donors provided another cock. Swamiji did not like having the birds in cages, and we didn’t like having them dragged off and eaten. I told Swamiji about Valerie’s farm. Since she had large animals like horses, maybe the birds would be safe there. He liked the idea of the birds having the freedom to be themselves. Valerie agreed to take them and came in her truck to pick them up. As she put the male in her large burlap bag, she said, “Huh! Maybe I’ll have white peacocks!” When I asked why she showed me the white feathers on the edge of the male’s wings.

That three-year course was probably the best thing I ever allowed myself to do. It was vital to knowing who I was and enabled all the subsequent emotional healing to take place. At the end of it, however, I was worn out. The crew who had made the meals had firm opinions about what food was good for us, but it included a lot that disagreed with me.

Also, the ashram property had a bad well. The water analysis said the water had 20 times the allowable amount of manganese. The guys in charge never looked up what that meant. Instead, they poured extra quantities of chlorine-based purifiers in the water. That bleached and rotted everyone’s hair and didn’t reduce or counter the manganese.

In the final year, a dozen of us, including me, got permission to cook our meals. We all went into Garberville to buy gallons of bottled water for drinking and cooking. I tried to meet with every visiting former student who had studied with Swamiji in India. All came home with chronic liver problems. I’d tell them to get bottled water since a compromised liver would make them especially sensitive to the excess manganese in our tap water.

Visiting Valerie’s Farm

I went to the vegetable garden with a pail to pick vegetables for dinner. It occupied a large rectangle to the side and down the hill from the old farmhouse. From the house, it seemed embroidered on the brown velvet of earth with varied shades of green and dark beet red, bright tomato red, and yellow, the vegetable colors. Along the fence, separating the garden from the field where the horses and Eeyore the donkey hung out, beans and berries grew.

Years before, when I taught elementary school, I’d ask the children where their food came from, and they’d say, “the store.” My afternoon harvest was more accurate, and it tasted good. The life and the beauty of the farm and the energy of our friendship was in it.

I’m a city girl, okay? For me too, veggies are in a bin in the market, usually. Truth? I felt out of place in the garden and excited to be there, both at once. I needed instruction regarding which were lettuce and which were greens that needed cooking. And, besides learning where the carrots were, I needed guidance regarding which were ready to be pulled and eaten. I picked a variety of zucchini, string beans, one carrot, lettuce, tomatoes, radish — some for salad, some for cooking.

I brought the vegetables for dinner to the house, hosed them off outside, and rewashed them in the utility sink inside the door. Valerie told me that it all was organic. If gratitude had a color, my gratitude was gold, and even today, decades later, I can still feel it shining.

I cooked dinner, adding rice and the beans we’d prepared earlier. We ate near the fireplace. My friend told me about their community marketplace. Farmers brought produce they had grown in ample supply and traded with each other. If she wanted a particular item, she’d ask the farmer who grew it to bring some, and they would.

Years passed, and Valerie gave up her vegetable garden and grew selected items in elevated gardens outside her home. It was less work.

Photo by AGL Fotos on Unsplash

Swamiji Visits the Farm

The peacocks were the excuse for Swamiji to visit the farm. They multiplied abundantly, and there were now white peacocks. Valerie thought they would be white except for a golden eye on each tail feather, but they were pure white. The cock’s fully-grown, open tail was like lace.

Swamiji loved the farm. What a picture he was there! — A short dark man with strong shoulders and bald head — not shaven, bald — which he kept covered with bright orange cloth. He dressed in 100% cotton dhoti and top cloth. A family in India had the thread died a radiant, bright orange and then woven for him. His students spent many hours ironing these flat orange rectangles. In colder weather, the Swami wore a similarly bright orange t-shirt. In even colder, snowy weather, he wore a bright orange storm jacket and an orange wooly hat, perhaps provided by his hosts. In the environment of rolling green hills decorated with clumps of eucalyptus trees and a pond, his bright orange stood out.

Photo by Michael Anfang Unsplash

Valerie allowed her animals, big and small, maximum freedom. They were relaxed and uniquely present with you, fully themselves, as I’ve never seen other animals. Swamiji remarked on how intelligent one of the horses was. It looked right in his eyes and moved carefully and politely around the visitor in bright orange.

When the course ended, I went to the farm to recover. After a month, I moved to San Francisco, where I got an office job. I never did return to the East Coast but worked and taught what I had studied in the San Francisco Bay Area for 12 years.

Some Years Later

We are all close to 40 years older now. On the first day of the retreat that opened my Ministerial School training, unbeknownst to me, Swamiji died in Rishikesh, India. As I was packing to go to join my colleagues, I felt a momentary flash of the same initial warmth from the first time I’d heard him speak. I thought I must visit him soon or I will miss the chance. Demands of Ministerial School took over then. I did not realize for a year or two that on the other side of the earth, in the Himalayas, Swamiji died at the very moment that I felt that closeness. As he left his earthly body, he must have checked in on each of us and blessed us.

Valerie has sold the farm. Years ago, I could not imagine that possibility. Someone else lives there now. Whenever I drive near the place, I feel a sharp pang of loss. No more Christmases there no more walks guarded by the Scottish deerhounds, no more llamas taking baths in the water tubs! The farm was a friend, not just a place. Like no other place I’ve known, it had a sacred consciousness. I hold the poetry and song, the ashram, the harvest, and many other memories like precious treasures wrapping friendship, spirituality, earth, and life together.

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Aikya Param is a licensed minister, a visual artist, and writer.

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