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This vignette is excerpted from A Journey with Elsa Cloud, just published by Books & Co./Turtle Point Press. The story opens with a telephone call to the narrator from her estranged daughter in India who, having become a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, lures her mother to the East with the promise of an audience with the Dalai Lama. What follows is a series of adventures and misadventures, in which travels through India weave around spiritual longing, family history, and the poignant dynamic of the mother-daughter relationship. Leila Hadley lives in New York and is a consulting editor to Tricycle.
Veronica slices another chunk from the pomegranate, symbol of rejuvenation and eternal life. Patting her mouth with a napkin, she says that Lord Buddha is often shown holding a pomegranate, a fertility symbol, suggesting an abundance of sons.
“In the 'Song of Songs,’ Solomon compares his beloved to a 'park of pomegranates.’ Do you suppose that’s why?” I ask. “Or do you think it’s got something to do with the Latin ponum granatum, apple of many seeds, the many facets to her character that symbolized rebirth and renewal of spirit?”
“Gosh, I don’t know. It’s a nice thought. It’s grenada in Spanish, grenade in French, anar in Hindi. I remember Solomon saying that the cheeks of his beloved were like a pomegranate split open. I thought that was a funny image, ruby red and seedy. But you know what, Mum?”
“You’ve got non-attachment all wrong.”
I wait for Veronica to deliver some ascetic, austere Buddhist doctrine. Instead, she surprises me.
“Non-attachment or detachment in the Buddhist sense has nothing to do with being isolated, indifferent, intellectually aloof, distant, above everything, not caring or not loving, or not emotional, or acting wise, or anything like that,” she says in her good-humored, lilting, musical voice. Having finished eating the pomegranate, she washes her hands and puts her sandals out in the hall to be polished. She undresses slowly, carefully, dropping her underwear into a pile for the hotel laundry, hanging up her skirt, adding her T-shirt to the laundry pile. “Non-attachment doesn’t mean you have to be poor, or not live luxuriously, or not enjoy life or sensual pleasures, or that you have to live like a monk or a nun,” she says. She opens a drawer, lifts out a white cotton nightgown, shakes it free of its folds, and says how wonderful it is that the drawers don’t stick the way they do in Dharamsala after the monsoon.
“The actual meaning of detachment,” she says, “is the understanding that comes when you know about yourself and the world. You know that people, things, places are impermanent. The world changes, the mind changes.”
I tamp out a beedie, and lace the fingers of both my hands together in a childhood hand-game, bringing up my thumbs to make doors, my index fingers to make a steeple. This is a church, this is a steeple, open the door and see all the people. I used to hear it as “see all the peep-holes,” the way the stars looked like tiny holes in the dark blue shade pulled across the sky. Now I study the triangle of my steepling index fingers. Is it a steeple like an obelisk, a symbol of a sunbeam?
“The way one sees the world depends on one’s opinion of it. The world as one knows it depends on one’s perception of it.” Veronica’s voice affects me as though I were listening to a choir of boy sopranos with a bowl of lilies of the valley beside me.
Perceptions change from moment to moment. The Buddhist sense of detachment doesn’t come by talking about it. It comes from contemplating the impermanence of everything, even thoughts, by practicing meditation. The whole network of one’s senses, memories, knowledge, understanding, and perceptions is changing every second. If one’s mind is undergoing change all the time, naturally one’s perceptions will be changing.
“Nothing is final forever,” she concludes. I pull my hands apart, reach out to clasp her hand.