As We Poured the Ashes in the River Ganga
For the last half century, social change worker Fran Peavey articulated, taught, and practiced what she called ‘heart politics’ in myriad social and environmental movements worldwide. Using the tools of listening, strategic questioning, reflection, and engagement, an effort employing heart politics works on a human scale to effect sustained social transformation, valuing connection across difference, power with instead of power over, and accountability through community.
In Heart Politics Revisited, Fran wrote, “Heart politics. . . is about making a deep connection with the life found in a specific place, culture, or area of land. Since the connection is with life, it is inconceivable to think in terms of organizing to kill, to punish, or destroy.” She died in San Francisco in October, 2011. She was my teacher.
Upon her death, Fran wanted her ashes poured one half into the Snake River in Idaho near her home town, and the other half into the Ganga River at Varanasi, the river to whose health she devoted the latter third of her life.
“My body is so large,” she’d say, “there shouldn’t be any problem dividing up the ashes.” To carry out the India wish, a small group of friends and collaborators from the United States and Australia met in Varanasi a few months after her death. We gathered at Tulsi Ghat, the complex of buildings ancient and modern that comprise the home of Dr. Veer Bahdra Mishra, the beloved Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple and his many endeavors, including the office of the Swatcha Ganga (Clean Ganges) Campaign office and water testing laboratory.
When Fran became wheelchair-bound, returning to Varanasi seemed impossible. The roads were a labyrinth of muddy lanes, and those that were paved were more often than not potholed and uneven. At the small air terminal in Varanasi the airbuses unload down a flight of stairs directly onto the tarmac. Nothing about this place spelled accessibility. But Peaveyji, as they call her here, came anyway. To accommodate her new wheels at Tulsi Ghat, Mahantji converted the ground floor of the guesthouse that sits atop the steep ghat into Fran’s new bedroom. He had ramps paved over the two small sets of steps connecting her new room to the Swatcha Ganga office across the courtyard. This room became known as Peavey Palace. Peavey Palace is one large rectangle with high ceilings, a platform bed at one end, and a sofa set neatly covered in new soft pink upholstery at the other. When you open the matching pink drapes, a wall of windows opens up high above the Ganga River.
On the day of the ceremony, we gathered in Peavey Palace. Catherine Porter showed up with the zip locked ashes sealed inside an old Assam tea tin. Sue Lennox scrolled through the photos on her laptop to find one of Fran for Mishraji, one of the directors of Swatcha Ganga, to print for the dinner we would later have in Fran’s honor. Michelle Walker and I retrieved the round earthen pot and plastic bag full of flower petals that had been set aside for the ceremony. One by one we trickled in, removing shoes at the door, and nestling in to the overstuffed pink sofas. And then we waited. Sitting by Fran’s bed months earlier in San Francisco, in the days before death, her friend Barbara Hazard wrote about the waiting in a poem that we read again now:
The Waiting Room
You have been summoned
but they have not yet
opened the door
nor even given you the time
of your appointment
and so you wait.
You cannot hurry this appointment;
you tap your fingers
in the narrow waiting room
that is now your life.
You make phone calls,
you stroke your dog,
you eat a peach
slice by slice.
We are waiting with you
but when they finally call you
you must enter by yourself.
You are ready. Everything
you needed to do is done.
Now your life is bare
of all but the essentials:
the people you love,
the dog who loves you,
a few loud shirts,
and some summer peaches.
Here in Peavey Palace, where we now waited, we opened the lid to the earthen vessel. Inside we found incense sticks and a muslin cloth. We were ready to take the next step in caring for our friend. We spread the cloth on the coffee table, used the lid to balance the weight of the completely round bottom, and opened up the tea tin. Linda Hess, the friend who originally directed Fran to Mahantji in the late 1970’s, Sue, and Catherine poured Fran’s grey and grainy ashes from the ziplock into the earthen pot. As they poured, we sang:
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.
I will never forget you, I will never forsake you.
We were making up the ceremony as we went along. We were sitting, waiting for the pujari, Mahantji’s in-house Hindu priest, to lead us in the traditional prayers, but we also found an ease in the collective task of calling sacredness into the circle we were creating ourselves. Mahantji joined us in Peavey Palace. Linda, a Kabir scholar, reminded us of the fifteenth century poet’s song that Chanulalji, Mahantji’s music teacher, sang the night before at the temple. The song told of life being like water in an earthen pot. Eventually the water seeps through the clay, just as the luster of our youth seeps through our bodies, and is gone.
When the pujari arrived, we filed part way down the ghat steps to the Sanscrit school, an open air alcove over looking the Ganga. The midday sun reflecting on the river created a soft white light as it bounced off the baby blue walls and ceiling of the interior. We wove around the young scholars gathered in groups of three or four hovering over low tables in their studies. As they chanted their lessons, we gathered around a red plastic patio chair where Ramchander, the boatman of Tulsi Ghat set Fran’s ashes. The pujari, clouded in the burning incense, completed his prayers and showed us our way down the ghat steps. We carried the earthen vessel wrapped in the muslin cloth, to the boat. From the banks of the Ganga, we waved back up to the pipal tree, in the shade of which Mahantji sat with his ailing knees to watch us in the river.
Ramchander brought us to the center of the river just upstream of Mahantji’s view. The pujari then recited in Sanskrit the Shaanti Paatha, or Peace Prayer:
There is peace in the heavens. Peace in the atmosphere. Peace reigns on earth. There is coolness in the water. Healing in the herbs. The trees are giving us peace. There is harmony in the planets and the stars and perfection in eternal knowledge. Everything in the universe is peaceful. Peace pervades everywhere, at all times. May that peace flow through me.
As we drifted back down past Tulsi Ghat, Catherine, Linda, and Sue poured Fran’s ashes over the side of the boat, into Mother Ganga. Upon the instruction of Dr. Sundd, another Swatcha Ganga director, Catherine then released the vessel itself, along with the flower petals and muslin cloth. The River Ganga would transform each of these elements back into river material as they traveled downstream toward Calcutta.
When the ashes poured in, Fran went home. I felt her slip into the waters, a final toodle-do wave as she said goodbye. I felt her gaze turn to her journey ahead, and the burden of work left unfinished lift. I felt the mantle pass. “It’s yours as much as it ever was mine,” she seemed to say. “Go.” I was flooded with gratitude. A river dolphin, rare these days, arched out of the water just downstream from the us, catching the eye of several of us in its greeting. Sue later said, “Fran’s taught us well. Her final resting place is in our hearts.”
Fran had urged all of us to think like water:
“I want to be so like water that I can fit into any vessel, flow anywhere, move with the grade, not only in my own way. Think like water! Fluid. Not limited by ideology, concepts; fresh in every moment.
I wish to think and act like water–powerfully working with other drops of water to wear away resistance drop by drop. Wear away the stones on which poverty and suffering rest. Always looking for the deepest way to flow, and to allow the world to flow through me. Cleaning, sparkling, bubbling. Think like water!”
Our task complete, Ramchander turned the boat toward Tulsi Ghat. As the boat approached the shore, Sue and I stood arm in arm facing downstream, and sang Fran home:
The river is flowing.
It’s flowing and growing.
The river is flowing down to the sea.
Mother, carry me.
Your child I will always be.
Mother, carry me down to the sea.
Angela Baker pointed to the sky. The eagle that had perched high above the river during our journey now took flight. We sang for Fran, but we also sang for ourselves, in recognition of our own journeys home. The song attests to a devotion, not to our beloved friend and teacher, but rather to the Mother, the universal mother, the earth, the river, any of these symbols of our fundamental interconnectedness with all life. We held this devotion in common with Fran.
The devotion seems to rest latent inside, swirling to the surface from deep below when one is soft enough to surrender to it. This circle song invites the surrender. And with it comes an unstoppable joy, followed by an easy yearning to be of service. With surrender, it becomes easier to get out of the way, so that my vessel–this body, mind, spirit–can do its job. Birthing mothers use this same song to prepare for the passage of their babies into the world. Birth and death, birth and death. Both demand this same surrender. Out on the River Ganga yesterday it was easy to remember that the life we live in between birth and death is no different: maintaining the softness to surrender is life’s work. Without it, work becomes truncated, cut from the source. With it, service instead flows from that deepest source. Words and actions become fit for offering back up to the river, to be churned back in to the cycle of life as the water carries all down to the sea.
As we ascended the steep stone steps back to Tulsi Ghat, Sue went to sit with Mahantji. He told her that, as he watched, his tears kept coming. He reflected that he saw in our culture something to learn. He observed that we were making community whereever we were, that our devotion to our friend brought us all the way here to say goodbye to her in Gangaji. He saw us embody the devotion taught in the Hindu tradition of bhakti. He was moved by the way we cared for our friend. The affirmation spreads like warmth, deep around our circle.
The sun is rising red over the River Ganga. The glistening orange water is flowing north at a clip. The wind is still. I am standing on my hotel room veranda. Sunrise is when the devoted from throughout Varanasi pad their way down to the banks to wash for the day, and give their thanks to the Mother Ganga. The thousands of men, women, and children lining this western curve of the River as the sun crests were preceded by thousands and thousands of others, lips moving with the same whispered prayers, palms joined, wrists touching forehead in the same ancient gesture, generations offering a continuously sustained prayer of gratitude for life, and daily embodiment of devotion to the source of it. We don’t not have the centuries of this tradition to buoy our actions in the same way those born into this path do. Instead, we are making our way by walking. Tapping whatever access we each carry to the source, we drew upon the same stillness, the same joy, to honor our friend, her work in the world, and ours. Here on the banks of the Ganges, our efforts have been seen, our prayers heard, and offered up.