Sunday, October 23, 2011


I live in a yellow house with twists and turns and steps – rooms tacked onto rooms, making it an unpredictable place. 

The floors are wood, worn.

There are animals – cats and a dog, maybe even squirrels in the walls.

As I walk up the crooked, uneven path to the front door I eye the disintegrating garden, looking for color. One of the pink daisies I bought in the Spring just put out one last small burst of flower – the color deep and strong though the bloom itself is small. 

I am disappointed in the garden this year. The zinnia – usually so reliable for color – turned brown and sickly right away – plants don't flourish here and I am frustrated, wondering do I have to spend a ton of money on fancy soil just to get flowers? That doesn't sound right, and each year I try again, always with such limited funds, and there are pockets of fleeting success, but I haven't mastered the sense of abundance and color I am hunting for.

Gardening should not be expensive, but it is. For instance, now's the time to plant bulbs so that in the Spring color will burst forth at a time when your heart really needs it, and you don't want to plant cheap WalMart bulbs, you want them from some kind of trusted source like Victoria Gardens, but they're a good $5 a pop, and I haven't done it yet.

I garden like my mother gardened. She's the only model I have. She gardened naturally, but roughly. She was not a Martha Stewart gardener.

The first time I heard of Martha Stewart was in the late 90s. I was still living in the ashram.

I had a dear friend, Amma, who had moved out of the ashram with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. They moved to an old farmhouse in New Hampshire where Amma painted a colorful sign in her perfect calligraphy for the front door that said “Welcome,” and they bought a few sheep and some chickens. 

Ruefully Amma admitted that she subscribed to a magazine put out by someone called Martha Stewart.

Amma and David and Libby were big figures in my life. Amma was tall, blonde and beautiful with an exceptional singing voice and a deep laugh. Her husband was tall, gangly, boyish and shy. Libby, when I first met her just 4 or 5, was shy too, but Libby fell a little in love with me. We were all still living in the ashram then.

Libby liked to read. When she got in the car the time I was taking her to see Little Shop of Horrors – a true aberration from ashram life – she brought her Grimm's fairytales, a paperback about 4 inches thick, small print, no pictures, and she read to herself when we weren't talking. 

Libby said she wanted me to be her godmother so we made up a ceremony, going to the Bade Baba temple on a snowy December night. 

The Bade Baba temple was the jewel of the ashram, located in the most celebrated area, the area where Gurumayi lived, where the nicest rooms were for the wealthiest guests, where the gardens were the most manicured, where the biggest meditation hall was with its glorious turquoise carpet, tiered floor and chandeliers. Everything was better in the Main Building – the name of this part of the ashram that had once been a Catskills hotel. Two other hotel complexes made up the rest of the ashram, all linked by a shuttle bus and footpaths.

But the Bade Baba temple was the nucleus, the most sacred, holy place. It was a small white building, almost circular, each side of the polygon-shaped building held a wide, tall plate of glass, looking out onto the smooth lawns and tidy gardens. 

In the center of the temple was a larger-than-life bronze statue of a man in the lotus posture, set up on a white marble pedestal and encircled by a ring of four white marble pillars. Plush turquoise carpeting made the place deeply quiet, like the inside of a shell.

So Libby and Amma and I went there for the godmother ceremony, offering Bade Baba a coconut and some prayers and afterwards we went to the Winter Garden to celebrate, a cafe that had been set up for the holidays in the lobby, complete with white tablecloths and fancy desserts, strings of white Christmas lights, menues and waiters, young people doing their seva – their selfless service. 

A few years ago I was being interviewed by a small new-age magazine about our Authentic Writing workshops, and I spoke with great enthusiasm and fluidity. “Well,” said the editor when we were about done, “would you like to say a few words about the value of service? We're doing an issue on service and asking this question of everyone we interview.” 

“No,” I said. “I don't want to say a word about service. That's totally not my subject,” and the man cracked up. He had thought I'd launch into all the predictable platitudes about service and I had refused. I had just been talking about wriing, something that really means something to me – there was no way I was going to spout a bunch of crap about how service is a good thing. 

When Fred and I were first a couple we went to visit Amma and Michael and Libby. Libby was about 10 and writing books at the computer about gnomes. There was a new baby. They gave us their brand new guest room, an addition they had built where everything was perfect – from the smooth down quilt to the two unused bottles of expensive lavender shampoo in the brand new shower. 

Amma had a spinning wheel going in the living room, using the wool from their sheep and she and Libby sang the song that Amma had written for all the neighborhood kids which had a chorus of “If you love your parents, clap your hands.”

At one point, in a private moment during our stay, Amma said something about how she'd had to come up with a story for Libby about how Fred and I could share a bed even though we weren't married. 

The ashram mantra played quietly and continuously in the kitchen.

When it came time to leave I saw that Fred was walking out of the room, leaving the bed we had slept in a tangled jumble of sheets. I knew the proper thing to do in this house would be to make that bed, even though Amma would be pulling it apart to launder everything. To leave that mess untouched seemed sacriligeous. I checked my impulse to tidy up and left it as Fred would have left it.  

A year later I invited Libby of course to be my flower girl at our wedding. 

But they had a conflict, Amma said over the phone, another wedding of someone from the ashram I hadn't even realized she was friends with. But perhaps in some stressed out way they could travel back from Nantucket in time to make our wedding – because how could they miss it? And Libby was so excited.

But they did not come. Nor sent a card or gift. It ended in silence. 

Somehow, through a vague trace on Facebook, I have picked up that Libby might be at a college now a few miles from my house. Maybe one day, by herself, she will look me up. Maybe not. 

I look back at that friendship – see some red flags along the way that at the time meant less than the substance of the friendship.

I hope for friendships that last, that are grounded on real appreciation, that don't make demands or depend on shared dogmas. 

The ashram brought so many disparate people together, brought us so close we became family, even the people I only knew by sight. Now I see through Facebook all these people scattered – the woman who was so close to Gurumayi during my time has dyed black hair, a botoxed face, and vivid red lipstick firmly in place in every photo. 


Anonymous said...


A review I read today of the Steve Jobs book talks about how Jobs often barged in on employees as they were working on something and said, "This is shit". (The CEO Looked Good?) Anyway, made me wonder what if anything SYDA-related had recently bubbled up on the blogs and here I am.

Your writing drew me right in, again. Something about when you write about this period of time has such immediacy for me. I only visited the Bade Baba temple in Fallsburg once, during the summer of 1996, but just now as I read this was right there. Even had the odd experience of actually catching a whiff of that distinct fragrance of freshly vacuumed carpet, oil lamps and incense. It tilted my head back a little.

There is also for me an unexpected sense of residual loss as I read this. Not only the loss of the time in my life that “was SYDA” but also the loss I feel, living as we all do now, in the disconnected age of Facebook, at time from which there is no turning back.

I feel the loss of the time we will never have back.

Best to you always,

MartaSzabo said...

Hi Lucid, how very wonderful to hear from you again. Thank you for your generous words. Yes, it is certainly a bygone age, like many others. It seemed permanent then, didn't it. I greatly appreciate hearing from you, thank you for the encouragement, and I send back to you my warmest wishes, Marta

Anonymous said...

p.s. Also in the paper last week, in an op-ed on Herman Cain, Maureen Dowd wrote: "It is a universally acknowledged truth that it's not the scandal that kills you; it's the cover up."

I'd actually never heard that "universal truth" before but boy oh boy, it sure does apply to you know what.

Anonymous said...

There are very good reasons to stay off Facebook, Linkedin
etc. Connections are forced, not organic. When products are free, you are the content of what is being sold. There is no benevolence behind social media and it behaves in highly anti-social authoritarian ways.

Miss the days of communal living at ashram too. Peace out everybody.

Anonymous said...

Check out the John Friend-steps-down-from-his-yoga-post article, complete with vintage photo of Muk and Nit, that ran in yesterday's NYT:

Yoga Fans Sexual Flames and, Predictably, Plenty of Scandal
by William J. Broad

Apparently these "bad apples" still fall perilously close to their trees.

Marta Szabo said...

Thanks, yes, I saw the article & posted it with a comment on Facebook with basically the same take as you express. No surprises there.

Anonymous said...

And apparently the NYT and I are both a bit slow on the uptake -- realized today this story has been all over the airwaves, huffpo, etc. for a few weeks.

But yeah, same old.