Sometimes in life, God smiles down on us and leads us to what I call a "soulfriend."
Not a soulmate - that usually implies a life partner. Have you ever met someone and just instantly bonded with them? It's happened to me maybe several times in my life.
Last weekend, our dear family friend Simon introduced me to an amazing woman named Sattya, who,like himself, is a devotee of the "Hugging Saint" from India, known affectionately as "Amma." (The Guru's real name is Mata Amritanandamayi).
Sattya used to be a fashion designer - she had a wholesale clothing business and shop on 5th Avenue in New York. That life was too stressful - so she became a Fortune 500 corporate recruiter. She placed 27 clients in the World Trade Center - she was able to save seven of them on 9/11 - she called them on her cell phone and begged them to run out of the building - no questions allowed. The guilt she felt was unbearable "I put them in that building," she told me. She worked around the clock for the Red Cross at Ground Zero for five months - making meals and serving the rescue workers, counseling families of the victims as they went through the agony of having to identify their loved ones, lending moral support and hugs to the workers, helping them when they needed it most and wanted to quit (can you blame them?). One day a worker complained about the food. "What is this slop? I want some meat!" So Sattya said, "ok!" She went and bought him a huge steak, whipped up some mashed potatoes and brought it over to him. He wept. I can't imagine the hell those workers went through.
Sattya gave up everything about a year ago - sold her BMW, gave up the Manhattan apartment, gave away all her furniture. She moved back to Bombay where she is an advocate for cancer patients and their families. You wouldn't believe the stories she has to tell. She was caught in the Bombay floods over the summer -walking around in water up to her neck, rescuing people - dead bodies floating all around her.
She has been a follower of Amma's for over 10 years. She used to go back and forth between NY and India - helping the poor and downtrodden per Amma's requests.
Amma feels very strongly about the children who live in the Red Light district of Calcutta. So, one day Sattya and another devotee who is a NY based photographer went to the Red Light district, with the intention of rescuing some children. This is probably one of the most dangerous places in the world for women to wander into. Sattya is very fair for an Indian, and she can speak Bengali - so she was really the navigator. Her friend (who is American)began taking pictures - and the pimps were MAD AS HELL. "What? Are you a journalist? Get out of here with your camera!" So her friend turned it around, and let the children take pictures of eachother. The children loved it so much that Sattya and her friend came back with disposable cameras for them to use.
Sattya and her friend were able to rescue 50 children - they wanted to place them in a boarding school - but many were HIV positive, and therefore were not accepted. So they placed them in a (British) orphanage. Sadly, most of the parents came and took them back to the slums, saying they needed them to work, clean, etc. Only 10 of the original 50 remained. She told me that many of the girls, some as young as 12 were sexually abused, and of course, those who returned were destined to live the life their mothers led.
Eventually, Sattya's friend, Zana Briski, founded the organization Kids with Cameras. She had a big exhibit in NYC and was able to raise $100,000 for scholarships for some of the children to study abroad. About 6 of the 10 children are now studying photography in an art school in NY. The ones who remained in India are also in school.
This is one blurb taken from the Kids with Cameras website:
"In Calcutta's red light district, over 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes. Only one group has a lower standing: their children. Zana Briski became involved in the lives of these children in 1998 when she first began photographing prostitutes in Calcutta. Living in the brothels for months at a time, she quickly developed a relationship with many of the kids who, often terrorized and abused, were drawn to the rare human companionship she offered.
Fascinated by her camera, Zana thought it would be great to see the world through their eyes. It was at that moment that she had the idea of teaching photography to the children of prostitutes.
To do so would involve overcoming nearly insurmountable obstacles – brothel owners, pimps, police, local politicians, and organized crime syndicate.
Zana held weekly photography workshops between 2000 and 2003. There the children learned camera basics, lighting, composition, the development of point-of-view, editing, and sequencing for narrative. To Zana's delight, equipped with inexpensive point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, the children produced incredible work. Their images are explosions of color: self-portraits, family pictures, street scenes, stunning tableaus of Bengali life."
Zana's film, Born into Brothels , a depiction of her work with the children won the Oscar for best documentary last year.
Getting back to Sattya - the day after I met her, we drove up to the beautiful Deer Park Buddhist Monestary, nestled in the remote hills of Escondido. There we had the privilege of listening to the world renown Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Although we got there a bit late, I got what I needed. This is what I got:
A life of consumption can only lead to emptiness - compassion and helping others is the way to peace.
This is it. This is all we've got: the here and now. The past is gone, it no longer exists and the future is yet to be. Liberation, awakening, peace, joy, and happiness can only be found in the present moment.
I spent the next three days with Sattya. We went to the beach (smoked cigarettes!) talked about life and death and spiritual lessons. I shared with her things I never even had the guts to share with anyone before, not even my therapists. (Yes, plural!).
Of course, we are still mere mortals and went shopping one morning! I got a new hand bag (well, the strap on my last one broke) and a beautiful turquoise Indian skirt. Girls will be girls. She gave me great tips on shampoo and is insisting on taking me to a salon to get a new haircut! God can be practical too, you know!
She has made me realize that the real treasures on this earth are my family and friends. I am a very lucky soul.