A Child of the Hare Krishna Movement
(this is an excerpt from a memoir which is not yet published)
My father and I carried two heavy duty black trash bags as our suitcases on and off of crimson cable cars and white city buses stained grime. It was the summer Jerry Garcia died, August of 1995. It was a hot time. It was a busy time in San Francisco. Hippies were buzzing around with sticks of incense and sage, mourning the dead of their leader but still wanting to have a good time, of course. We carted our black trash bags through the crowds of spectators and Dead Heads at Golden Gate Park. We carted the trash bags along with us for slices of cheese pizza from a vendor. We carted the trash bags to the arboretum where they held them for us behind the desk as we looked at the exhibits. At the end of the day we boarded a bus and rode along, exhausted from our exciting day in the city. When we got off and the bus drove away Dad and I both looked down at my empty hands, horrified. I had forgotten my “suitcase” on the bus. So Dad bought me a t-shirt that read San Francisco and had a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge– I wore that t-shirt and a long flowered hippie skirt for the rest of the summer.
We were not Dead Heads. I did end up with a little sticker that read Dead Head and when we got home from our summer vacation to San Francisco I put the sticker on my purple lunch pail, not knowing what it meant exactly, but being drawn to it. Really we were a kind of hill or farm people from a family of redwood loggers. We were average people, Dad and I. We listened to The Police and The Steve Miller Band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Yeah, I guess we were pretty average, besides the Hare Krishna thing.
What brought us to San Francisco in August of the summer Jerry Garcia died was a festival called Ratha Yatra put on by ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Conciousness. Anyone living in a large city, anywhere in the world, has likely heard of, been a spectator of, or been involved in a Ratha Yatra. Everybody I know has at least seen a Hare Krishna devotee. Stereotypically, they are those kind folks you see passing out carnations in the airport.
A couple of years prior to that summer vacation Dad sat me down and point blank told me two things: One, that we were now vegetarians. No McDonald’s. No Kentucky Fried Chicken. And two, we would chant a song called the Mahamantra. No Jesus Loves Me, no Deep and Wide.
For a good few years we never ate meat, not even chicken Top Ramen (a kind of crime in my hometown) and we sang the Mahamantra (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna) morning and night. My dad moved us from our modest house in town into a single wide trailer on a heavenly piece of property he took out a loan for. At our new home there was no electricity, no supermarket, no minimart, no police. There were no phones whatsoever (this was before cell phones) and there was no water company. The men who lived up on the flat would take turns maintaining the water supply located on the other side of the river and they had to take a manual cable ride fifty feet in the air and across the river to access it. The neighbors were mostly outlaws in one form or another. A couple of the neighbors were Hare Krishna’s—they were the one’s who’d turned my dad on to the Movement and told my Dad about the cheap land off-the-grid.
Life became infinitely better. The Ratha Yatra would be a celebration of how far we had come, just me and him, and of the great things that were in our future. Granted, there was a somber tone in San Francisco, an upsetting, over this Jerry Garcia business. But I was too young for all of that. And like I said, we listened to The Police not The Grateful Dead.
At our house in town the memory of my mother had hung all around in the air and made it hard to breathe. Seeing her things, her old flannel buttondown shirts and her photographs from high school, those things made me think my mother might come back for us–which she would not be doing. Up the river there was lots of fresh air. It was a place my mother had never been. And once we moved there I stopped expecting her to come back to us.
Religion suited my Dad. Before it was him keeping up with his sea fisherman friends as they drank beers and shot the shit around a bon fire. My Dad asking “Is there more? More to life than this?” His friends just laughing and putting back their cheap American beer. They’d tell my Dad he was asking too many questions.
Then Dad met Al, a hard-working Mexican man from southern California. Al was growing his own garden, building his own home, and he liked to go deep with my dad in conversation. Al was a nature-oriented guy, and he was a Hare Krishna.
Al had a wife and grown children. He had a home he built with his own hands. Al was a Real Man and he became a mentor and a friend to my dad. He listened to my father finally express to somebody the way he felt about my mother making a hollow of our family. There was a lot of pain still there. Surrendering the pain to a greater power seemed to unburden my father, who was no stranger to Christianity but who, well, was just too strange for Christianity. Too outside-the-box. My Dad immediately became engaged in the Movement and in emulating the simple life Al and his wife sought for themselves out in the mountains. My father began to seek that same life for us too.
Eventually we built our own modest single room cabin and painted the outside red (I helped with the painting). We sold our singlewide trailer and laid a concrete foundation for what we called the Dream House. In the Dream House I was going to have my very own bedroom, there was going to be a bay window in the living space, an island in the kitchen, hardwood floors, and lots of sky-lights. Maybe even saloon doors. We dreamed up our Dream House over cups of chamomile tea and kerosene lamp light, sometimes making sketches with notebook paper and pencils we would sharpen with kitchen knives.
From the get-go we were using solar panels, fire lanterns, and growing a garden. I didn’t even miss meat. Or Top Ramen. Or town. Al’s wife cooked the best vegetarian food on the planet, which I found made it worth it to sit through hours of curtal, during which we would worship Lord Krishna, all of us seated on the floor with musical instruments, deities, Sanskrit hymn books and dim lighting.
Ratha Yatra is the biggest Hare Krishna shin-dig in the nation and happens not only in San Francisco but in Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, New York City, British Columbia, Canada and other places too. Over the next few years we would travel further to get to Ratha Yatra, staying with devotees in their homes, all devout, all very serious family people, people of all colors and from unique origins, some very kind, others not as much. Back in Crescent City my father’s family was shaking their heads and fingers worrying that we were joining a cult, that I was being molested, and that my father was losing his mind. None of those things were true.
The San Francisco Ratha Yatra was the first one I went to. My father attended the summer prior and had me stay with my grandmother. During that time, she tried to un-teach me all the things about the Movement that I’d already learned. When my grandmother cooked she would sneak meat into my food, and she wasn’t at all interested in learning the hymns and children’s stories I’d come to love so much.
My grandmother condescendingly called my father a “Hairy Krishner” but never called me one. I was not allowed to use my prayer beads in her presence. If I told my grandmother the stories I had learned she would roll her eyes and click her tongue impatiently, legs jumping in her seat, subtlety ridiculing anything my father or I had to say about the Movement. My grandmother was an artist. Art was her religion. She had something to live for already. We did not. The Movement was the best thing that ever happened to us and that’s why I start my story there.
My mother was living in Arkansas with a new man and their brand-new baby boy. She’d sent me a picture through the mail. I stared at it day in and day out. She had a deep tan and wore tank top and cut-offs. I had never seen her with a tan before. Not that I’d seen much of her at all, just in photos. My mother sent me a picture of her boyfriend’s pickup truck, which they’d spray painted camouflage green and black. By way of a four by six inch colored photograph I was introduced to my baby brother Jesse sitting in a blue Jonny Jumper, a dazed look on his face, red-skinned like he’s been crying, large, eager eyes.
Meanwhile Dad and I had built our own home, were travelling, we’d grown a garden, and had an adorable yet vicious chow dog named after the goddess Lakshmi; my dad was still working for the road department making street signs, and I was going into the third grade at an elementary school mostly full of Mexican kids. Not that my mother ever asked what we were up to.
It was my first year at Ratha Yatra and the day after we lost my big black trash bag. We rode in a van with no back seats along with several other devotees from the Hare Krishna temple in Berkeley to the Golden Gate Park. The festival, I was learning, would center around three massive chariots, or carts, all decorated to represent different Gods: Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his brother Lord Baladeva, and his sister Subhadra. The word Ratha Yatra in Sanskrit translates to “The Chariot Journey”. The people, or devotees, would be moving the chariots from one location to another by pulling large ropes attached to the front of the carts with nothing but their weight, pulling them along maybe just one mile or so through the park.
It was a warm San Francisco summer. There were rollerbladers and strollers and joggers and junkies. In the midst of all this, were three colorfully decorated double-decker carts with larger than life deities cemented to the front, flower garlands and bouquets of blossoms galore, some of which I’d helped make back at the temple. Seated on tapestries on the floor, we’d strung carnation flowers onto strings, during which an old Indian woman smacked my hand when I put the thread into my mouth to needle it, like my great grandmother had taught me. The woman pointed to a small bowl of water. I dipped my string into there, embarrassed.
Now we were all standing around the carts, admiring them. Devotees up on the balcony were tossing the colorful and fragrant garlands down to us, smiling and cheering. We placed them around our necks. “Harrre Krishnnna!” We all hollered. My dad raised his hands above his head and closed his eyes. I closed my eyes too and danced with my father to the Sanskrit chanting that was humming through the crowd.
Soon, we would begin moving the carts down the streets of Golden Gate Park. I had never seen so many people. It was twenty times the amount of people that went to the Del Norte County Fair. And this was a whole different kind of people. The women were so beautiful they made me blush. I tried not to stare. There were teenagers in traditional saris, honey-colored and royal purple; women with delicate nose rings, gold jewelry, and braids down to their butts. I almost forgot my dad had bought me a sari for the occasion too, and that I was wearing it—a green and mustard sari the exact color of my eyes. The dress showed part of my stomach but the front was covered up where my sari wrapped around me like a sash. One of the women from the temple, one of the many silent, colored women who didn’t smile or speak my language, painted a red bindi dot on the center of my forehead and frenchbraided my hair. She didn’t say a word when she did but I was grateful beyond belief. Just grateful to be touched by a woman.
All the devotees and passers-by were transfixed, dancing and chanting, not a single person looking bored or inhaling cotton candy. Soon, we would begin pulling the chariots. We all lined up alongside thick blond ropes stretching out from the center of the cart. The rope was as large as my dad’s forearm. Some of the people were jumping on their toes with excitement. Seemed to be jumping as high as they could. These were mainly the men, in their simple orange robes hanging around their ass and legs like heavy diapers. My own father stood in the crowd talking seriously with a devotee. They both wore tulsi paint on their third eye, trailing up their forehead like a horseshoe. They both had shaved heads and beards and sand-colored clothing. But I knew the real difference: my dad wasn’t a true devotee, he hadn’t been initiated (which is the Hare Krishna equivalent of being baptized)—but he sure looked the part.
My patience was waning. It was incredibly warm outside for San Francisco. I looked up at the blue sun, squinting. I was sweating. Soon, I started to not feel so hot. I felt like I needed to sit down on the ground. But I didn’t see anybody else sitting down on the ground. It wouldn’t have been appropriate. I didn’t want to stand out or disappoint my dad. If you did something wrong, eat meat for example, you wouldn’t be permitted to stay at the temple, which meant we’d be sleeping in the pickup truck down the road from the temple. Already I had goofed up by ordering Sour Cream and Onion chips in front of the devotees along with my vegetarian sandwich at Subway. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to me or my Dad but I just had to do something. As I finally reached out to touch his arm, I crumpled at my father’s feet, my vision blackened like spilled ink.
I regained consciousness while being carried to the outskirts of the crowd. My father set me down on the curb under a bridge where there was shade. The devotee he had been talking with handed me a warm plastic bottle of water and a salty rice cake and sat with me as I ate and drank and mumbled how sorry I was, I’d never fainted before.
My father looked concerned. As I ate, the devotee assured me that I would start feel to feel much better. Within minutes, I did feel better. I told the devotee how worried I was that the festival will start without us and that we had lost our place alongside the rope. The devotee looked at me strait in the eyes and told me that Lord Krishna was waiting on me and was happy to wait all day if he had to. I looked back at the devotee skeptically. He continued to tell me that Krishna wanted me to be well and promised me that he himself would save our spot alongside the rope for as long as it took me to feel better. The devotee instructed me to sit on the curb until I was good and ready to go back. He said as soon as I stood up and went back to the rope, the Festival of the Chariots would begin.
Several minutes later I stood up and the three of us weaved our way back through the dancing crowd to our spot alongside the rope, it was open and appeared to be waiting for us. Just as the devotee had promised, as soon as my hands grabbed the rope, the crowd started chanting, ONE, pull, TWO, pull, THREE! and the Festival of the Chariots officially began.
San Francisco, Ratha Yatra, our summer road trips, and our fateful move to the mountains is not where it all began. But that’s where I like to start from. These things, the flowers and the dancing and the women and the rivers and the mountains, these were the experiences I desperately needed to begin to heal my already very serious kid-wounds. At nine I was carting around big secrets. I didn’t have the vocabulary nor the courage to tell anybody all that had happened to me and I wouldn’t open my mouth about any of that for another decade or more. But just because I couldn’t speak, well that didn’t mean I couldn’t dance. And dance we did, with the devotees of San Francisco.