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Location: New Mexico

Publications: Japji Sahib: The Song of the Soul by Guru Nanak translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Anand Sahib: The Song of Bliss by Guru Amar Das translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Available through www.sikhdharma.org.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Escape Velocity

Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh.

Last month, I traveled to Los Angeles for Sikh Dharma’s annual Baisakhi celebration at the LA Convention Center. I’d like to say it was all pleasure and no work, but that’s somebody else’s life, not mine. Kirtan Singh invited me to come and help their Baisakhi planning team with PR – so the Friday before the event, he, myself, and a few others drove to the Convention Center to scope out the hall where we would be holding our Baisakhi press conference.

Ever since September 11th, we – all of us – in the Sikh community have been profoundly aware of how necessary it is to educate the public about the Sikh faith. About the Sikh identity. Most of all – about the Sikh turban. While Baisakhi is mainly a time to come together as sangat and pray, in Los Angeles, at any rate, it has also become an opportunity to reach out to the public and say, "This is who we are."

We went to the Convention Center to preview the space, and coincidences of coincidences, the California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson and the Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa were holding a press conference in the exact same place - talking about the issue of immigration. Hundreds of people had become US citizens that day. They gathered around, with big smiles, waving miniature US flags, listening to the dignitaries talk about their views on immigration and citizenship. We watched the press conference closely – not because of the immigration issue, but to see how we could make the space successful for our event. TV cameras milled around, the Secretary of State spoke eloquently about supporting people living in California to go through the process of becoming citizens. And we stood off to the side, a group of people in turbans, admiring the backdrop they were using during the conference and wondering where they got the cool portable Secretary of State seal that was mounted so professionally on the podium.

Eventually, the camera men began to pack up their equipment. The Mayor walked away from the microphone and took time to speak with people one on one. Newly sworn-in citizens of the United States left to return to their homes or their jobs, and it was finally time for the Secretary of State to leave the hall.

I stood near the escalator, not talking to anyone, just people-watching – when all of the sudden, on his way to the escalator, the Secretary of State strode very purposely and confidently up to me. He held out his hand, took mine in a warm handshake, and with a deep and truly sincere smile in his eyes said, "Congratulations."

For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. Here was the Secretary of State of California picking me randomly out of a crowd to congratulate me on becoming a US citizen.

It wasn’t a press moment. There wasn’t anyone around to “witness” this. There was no PR reason for him to do it. He was so sincere, so heart-felt, so kind and warm and real in offering me congratulations that I just stood there stunned, in silence for a moment, not knowing what to do.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that he would have thought I was an immigrant. Standing there in a turban and chuni, with a shawl draped around my shoulders and my purse strategically covering my kirpan – I definitely looked exotic. Other-worldly. No one would have pegged me as a born-and-bred American. Oh – maybe if I’d had a few tattoos on my arms, my nose pierced and my hair dyed a shocking pink I could have passed. But the turban…that just must have just looked a little too unusual.

Finally, realizing I had to say something, I smiled back at the Secretary and said, “Thank you.”

He kept holding my hand, waiting for me to say more. Not wanting to hurt his feelings (he was so kind about it), but also not wanting to misrepresent myself, I said very quietly, “Umm…I actually was born….”

His eyes widened as he began to comprehend what I was saying. “Oh – you were born…?”

“Yes.”

Born in the United States.

At that moment, Kirtan Singh, who hadn’t heard the Secretary of State’s words to me, but had the presence of mind to walk over and do his oh -so -suave diplomacy, introduced himself. “Secretary of State McPherson, I’m Kirtan Singh Khalsa with Sikh Dharma International,” handing the Secretary his business card. “We have been hoping you could attend our Baisakhi event for years. Will you be in town on Sunday? We would love for you to come.”

The conversation turned in a more formal direction as the Secretary expressed a seemingly genuine interest in attending the event, but regretted he would be in another part of the state on Sunday. Before he left however, he turned to me with a wry smile. “My ancestors used to wear kilts, you know.”

I understood what he meant. In the collective psyche of this country, there is an assumption that becoming a citizen means leaving your old life behind. Giving up the language you spoke in the old country. Giving up the dress, the culture, the social structure. The food always gets integrated. No one has to give up their cuisine. But becoming “American” means replacing the kilt with a pair of trousers. Speaking English at home instead of Gaelic. Keeping the stories of where you came from and what your family’s life had been like “Back then. Back there.”

But leaving it all behind.

Later that day, I shared the story of what happened with a friend of mine – who, like me, was born in the United States and has become a Sikh. He laughed and said, “Oh God – I wish that had happened to me. I would have had the perfect response!”

“Really?” I asked him. “What would you have said?”

“I would have said – Secretary – my family came here in 1897. And it’s about time somebody said congratulations!”

*************

In the limousine on the way to the cemetery, my father and the limousine driver talk about the immigration issue. Both of them in their 60’s, both from Irish Catholic families, both having grown up in South Jersey. “There’s nothing wrong with them being here,” the driver says to my dad. “They should just go through the paperwork like the rest of us had to.”

The rest of us.

You would think he was talking about something that happened a couple months ago or a couple years ago – not something that happened a couple generations ago. But among these close-knit families who came over together at the turn of the century – a couple generations ago is just like yesterday.

My father’s sister passed away Baisakhi weekend. In the Catholic faith, it was the day before Easter. My aunt, Eileen, had lived her life a very devoted Catholic. Not fanatic. But devoted. And I know it was God’s blessing that He called her home right at Easter time.

Ten days after her death, I am with my family in New Jersey in the back seat of a limousine, leaving St. Mary’s Catholic Church and traveling to the cemetery where great aunts and uncles, second cousins and distant relations wait for the Day of Judgment together. In death, the cemetery becomes a family reunion. “Your great aunt such-and-such is buried here with her husband.” “Your grandfather is buried over there.” “This is the plot where your father will be buried when he dies– where your mother will be buried when she dies.” Those social ties go from birth to grave, and even where you are buried, who you are buried with or next to can become a politic. There are no spots for my two brothers, my sister or I. By the time my generation came along, all the plots in the cemetery had been sold. For the newcomers, it’s cremation and a sealed spot in a Memorial Wall for the ashes.

For the last few days, I have watched my father as the family rolled up its sleeves to help clean my aunt’s home. My aunt, who lived with my grandmother until my grandmother’s death ten years ago. For my father, it is like taking a forced walk down memory lane. My aunt has his elementary school report cards in a box under her bead – which my sister and I read with too much enjoyment. There are photo albums upon photo albums upon photo albums. And then there is the photo album of the family tree that starts with the cousins in Ireland – the ones who stayed. And progresses to the photos of the great-grandparents and aunts and uncles who hopped on the boat. Because it was better to risk coming to the United States than to stay in Ireland and starve.

Looking at these old faded black and white pictures that chronicle the generations for nearly a century, I watch my father fall into a reverie that I have never seen in him before. He knows all these people. He knows all of their stories. Who married who. Who begot who. What kind of work they did – who got who a job in whatever South Jersey blue-collar industry the Irish took over. Who was a cheat or a thief. Who was kind, gentle and honorable. He recites these stories in an almost sing-songy way – something he has heard since childhood over and over and over and over and over again – where even if he wanted to try to forget – he wasn’t allowed to forget. This is where you came from. This is who you are. This is what you have to be.

But my father, like me, is a rebel. And while he talks, I can see deep inside these are the stories of the shackles he fought his whole life to break free from. When I was a child, he would get angry if we said we were, “Half-Irish and Half Italian.” “You’re American,” he would say. “You’re not Irish. You’re not Italian. You’re American.” And it is only now – 30 years later – that I understand his fierceness.

My aunt never got out of it. She spent her life repeating the stories her mother told her – about the cousin who came to the United States and then went back to Ireland to marry her true love. About the Kearnys and the Dunns – the different Irish clans – who did what to whom, what the relationships were. She and her cousin Charlie tried to trace the family tree back as far as they could. And she traveled to Ireland regularly, to meet with the cousins there. To keep the social connections, the family relations going.

The night before the funeral, there is a wake at the funeral parlor. My aunt is in the casket for all to view. Cousins of my father’s come to pay their respects – people we haven’t seen since my grandmother’s death ten years ago. This is a time for the family – but my sister and I almost get into a fight about me wearing my turban to the wake and the funeral. My mother says it won’t be a problem and, as in all families, mother’s word is law. I wear the turban, but no one has to try and pronounce my Sikh name – Ek Ong Kaar Kaur. For now, I am once again Bernadette – the daughter of Jim and Dee – and if you don’t look too closely, the Sikh bana I wear is not all that different from the habit of a nun.

My father’s cousins are delighted to see him. And like the stereotype in the movies, an Irish wake can, after all, be a merry affair. There’s questions and laughter, love and tears. And I see the deep bond my father has with these people – these people he only sees at funerals once in a decade.

*******

At the cemetery, the cherry trees are in blossom and pink petals are scattered across the green grass, as if the wind was a flower girl celebrating the path of a bride. It is beautiful and quiet, and the priest reads the last words as we gather around the casket. He is old and has read these words thousands of times before. He does it with an impersonal kindness. Then each of us in the family places a rose on the casket, one by one, to say our last good-bye.

Standing distant from my own self in the cemetery, I watch these last rites and realize that the process my father started has continued with me. He could never completely break free from the bonds of the past – the past generations – Ireland, all the pain and wounds, all the joy and relations. He tried to forget, to move on, but something in him could never completely walk away.

For me, the stories of my ancestors mean little. I am third generation immigrant born on both sides of the family – and it explains the color of my hair, perhaps, the shape of my eyes. But the stories of my forefathers have no emotional hold on me. If I were to ever have children, the story I would share with them would be a very different story – and wouldn’t include the cousins in Ireland or the way my grandmother met my grandfather or the argument someone had with someone else half a century ago.

It would be a very different story indeed.

In the parlance of science, there is a speed a rocket has to travel to escape the gravity of the earth. Once free of the earth’s gravity, the rocket needs far less fuel to propel itself forward, to discover new territory in the vast openess of space.

Escape Velocity.

Memory has its own gravity - of the past, of all that lies unresolved in the collective unconscious of our relatives. And through the stories they give us, it becomes a weight to hold us down, to hold us back, to keep us focused on something that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the journey our spirits would choose to make. Even though it defines us, we strive to escape the trap of memory because it also limits us, confines us, keeps us bound to someone else’s life but not our own.

Standing in the cemetery, with the breeze blowing, I feel that space. “Saibhang” Guru Nanak calls it. The spirit unbound moving by its own purity and projection. To whatever extent I have escaped the pull of the past – that has given me a future. And my soul is like a rocket ship – free to explore the singular moment of my life, without attachment to the past or the need to call any place home.

All love in the Divine,

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think that the Indian Sikhs don't have their own gravity, weight or traditions? All Bhajan did was to co-opt you to continue what his ancestors had started. You became his village, and he was the Raj; the village head.

One day you will wake up and realize how hard your parents had to fight to let you be an American. Maybe parts of America suck, but the old countries had their problems as well.

I realized this when I was serving guests at The Ranch. My parents didn't raise me to be the servant of Indian Women who spoke Punjabi in my presence so the help couldn't understand. My parents sacrificed and worked really hard so I could go to college and give my children what they didn't have.

My family also had problems, but in the end, they cared about me a lot more than Yogi Bhajan ever did. They cared about me because they had to- they were actually my family. Same went for the Sangat. My children called people "auntie" and "uncle" who ultimately didn't really know them.

I knew SSS for 25 years though, so I saw him after the "honeymoon" period. It took a while to see the part of him that wasn't all glitter. You are at a disadvantage in that respect. You knew him for a short time, got the best of him, and now live the romantic memory.

Be careful, lest you forget who you really are. You can take the best and leave the rest. The world changes, and you are allowed to change with it. When you want to keep changing and are told not to, you will know that you have grown from your 3ho years, and become wise. Use that wisdom and move on when it is time. Don't stop growing. And be careful of your entanglements. It can be hard to move on with a husband or children. More broken families on the inside of 3ho than on the outside; though only partly for that reason.

I am telling you this because you seem to not have lost your spunk yet and you still think original thoughts. I can see it in your posts.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks much, Ek Ong Kaar Sister for sharing your organic thoughts full of love and emotions.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Dear Anonymous(aren’t we all?) soul,

"No matter where you go, there you are.".
Read this quote long time ago, but realizing it more with every passing moment.

Whether one has a good or bad experience in any past, present or future, it would become part of their outer change. However, one definitely can't escape from their true self (which by the way never changes). The rest is all transitory.

Love and Peace…

Gurwinder Singh.
BC – Canada

.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good read!
The following paragraph took me to my past days -
"the collective psyche of this country, there is an assumption that becoming a citizen means leaving your old life behind. Giving up the language you spoke in the old country. Giving up the dress, the culture, the social structure. The food always gets integrated. No one has to give up their cuisine. But becoming “American” means replacing the kilt with a pair of trousers. Speaking English at home instead of Gaelic. Keeping the stories of where you came from and what your family’s life had been like “Back then. Back there.” "

So I wanted to recommend you a book to read "The Earth Knows My Name " by Patricia Klindienst. If you especially read the 'Punjabi Garden' that represents 'peace'; you will see how we became 'Americans' yet nourish our souls by keeping our dress, language, food and faith alive in our hearts with little things that we do on daily basis.

Guru Raakha!

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a shame that you seem to be abandoning your own heritage by not wanting to pass on the oral histories and traditions of your family, or at least that's the impression that you give. It's a part of you and should be shared and passed on to the generations to come. JMHO.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Gurwinder Singh,

I wasn't putting down Sikhism or the spirituality that can be gained from it.

I wonder how you would feel though, after 25 years if you changed your name, changed your religion, and in every sense of the word, abandoned your family. Yes, your parents would probably try to still keep in touch, but you would no longer identify with your cousins, siblings, old friends or your Indian heritage.

This is really a big thing for someone to take away from you in the name of God, especially when he his trying to say that Nanak or Guru Gobind Singh would have wanted her to have no past.

Just as a nun says that she is married to Jesus, when people say that Guru Gobind Singh and Mata Sahib Kaur are their parents, do you really think that they meant for people to give up their own parents family and place in American Society? I can tell you that is what ultimately happens.

When Indira Ghandi was shot, I realized that being a 3ho Sikh was no longer about being an American Hippie and living a groovy new life. There were millions of Sikhs who had an agenda with karma that I had thrown my lot in with, whom I had ultimately nothing in common with. I also realized that my ancestors had also fought and died and martyred themselves for their righteous causes as well.

This took nothing away from Sikhism, just that we do live on this earth. In our heads we can and should be as cosmic as possible. But pretending you are someone else because a Spiritual leader tells inspiring stories and threatens you with hell (or 8.6 million lifetimes - no difference) if you ever leave, really doesn't take away your karma.

I actually did have a very good experience with my 25 years in 3ho. I gained an inner life and a psychological understanding that came with Yogi Bhajan's lectures, sadahana, chanting and reading my banis. But there came a time when I had healed what I needed to heal, and I needed to live the life that God handed to me when I was born this time. That is when things went bad. I never missed a sadahana, but I started to have more independent interests.

Yogi Bhajan is dead now, so there is no ultimate policeman on top to stop anyone, but I'll bet that the ones who trained with him for 30 years, still know their limits.

Yogi Bhajan was a Sikh, but he taught to Americans in their own language and in their own land. He predicted the end of Western Society, and that we, Sikhs would be there to save everyone. Only Western society while it is in crisis, and has been through out all history, didn't end. My relatives and friends were prospering and raising families while I was chanting for prosperity and waiting for the end of the world so I could help them.

That is why I mentioned that Ek Ong Kar Kaur could take the best and leave the rest. Once you give up your discerning facilities and accept all "the teachings" (as taught by Yogi Bhajan) as if they are gospel, you have joined a fundamentalist religion. And I don't think Sikhism was ever meant to be taught that way.

I so wish that someone had warned me, and who knows if my words will be heeded? I won't be back to bother anyone anymore. I just saw a spark of creativity and light in Ek Ong Kar Kaur's thoughts and thought these were issues that she may want to think about.

1:18 PM  
Blogger SikhsRus said...

Thank you for sharing! It comes from a true heart. In Waheguru's court there is only one tradition that goes along with a person that is not Irish, not Indian, not Punjabi, not Irish, not Chinese but being a Sikh. I love the following analogy and it is so true: "Escape Velocity". May Waheguru bless you! and give you the strength to stay in chardi kala! More of this beautiful writing please! Some of us are really getting hooked, if i can use this word.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Pritam Singh Khalsa said...

Wow some people have their head stuck really far up their #*$. Why do I see alot of ex3h0 Sikhs with sooooooooo much ego. They talk like they know everything about everyone. If you do then you are, or spoke with God. My brother thinks like that, as if he knows sooo much, enough to just spit out as many things as possible, elevating himself up to Supreme court judge or U.S President.People like this are the biggest fools!

Everybody is human and you cant be completely perfect. There are times when you have hard times, but so can control these feelings to a minimum,and not eliminate them all together.

These ex3ho-ers probably just read banis and dont pay attention or dont anymore read banis thus not paying attention. If you are an ex-Sikh good. Go Away then. Go be unhappy and take your $#!%%y vibe with you. You make everything you say sound bad, so go bury yourself in your own filth. I am not a 3ho Sikh but use alot of its teachings. I look at all humans the same no matter how good they are or say they are etc. I might like someones opinion but it doesnt elevate that person any higher than a human. We were all born disgustingly human but have Sri Guru Granth Sahib to help us clean away filth. I really think these ex people are really annoying, and they should feel ashamed if they keep a beard and Kaysh because they sure dont sound like a Sikh of the Guru but they think they are a Guru like a Nirankari does.

I like this story it makes me realize how I am American but needed to shed away my families generations of wrong way of life.Yes I have family history, like Im related to Sir Walter Scott etc but does that make me need to live as a clone of him or his lifestyle? No. His judgement is his, mine will be for me and me only. Everyone has a choice to return or stay on this Earth. I plan to live a clean life and I couldnt do it without Sikhi. I know because I was raised diffrently and found it with Wahegurus grace and now know regardless of what people say about Sikhi. Follow Gurus word and youll have all rewards. Forsake it and suffer what you brought about on yourself. Tooo much to say sooo little time.I put myself in the line of fire, shoot away!
SatNam
Waheguru Ji ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji ki fateh!

4:35 PM  
Blogger Ek Ong Kaar Kaur said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Hari Singh said...

Thank you for the wonderful accounts – true compassion, dedication, independence, bravery and love – values that are difficult to find easily these days!

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are you talking about anonymous? She is basically describing her feelings and experiences..is that not allowed to do? If you don't respect her point of view or her blog...don't read it? Most of your comments are not related to the topic that she wrote about..unfortunality your annomosity toward Yogi Bhajan is taking the best of you.

Good post Ek ong kar. I like your reading your blog, its very detailed and discriptive.

thanks

simple observer

3:48 PM  
Blogger Dr Savi Arora said...

Your posting shows real 'heart' - it is wonderful writing to be admired.

Whilst reading this posting, your episode with the Sec of State reminded me of a a personal stories.

The time when I attended a meeting in Poole (Dorset, England, UK). Probably in the mid 90s.

Just some background, I was born in London and my father was one of the early migrants to the UK in 1958. I am a Sikh.

Back to the story - I had spent 2 hours in the car from London. I parked in the giant car park of a bank I was attending to talk to this potential client about an international project.

I proceeded to the main desk situated in the middle of a giant glass roofed atrium. The receptionist turned to me and asked me who I wished to see. I replied with her name. Her expression suddenly changed to a shock or alarm or wonder. She suddenly declared - You're not supposed to talk like that - She was implying that I should have spoken in a stereotypical accented manner rather than in my English accent. My only reply was to explain that quite a few generations were now in the UK and that Peter Sellers the comedian had not done anyone any favours by planting an unfortunate vocal stereotype.

The story shows that unfortunately in this day and age assumptions can be made about a person just on first glance. I have a Sikh friend who has an amazing broad Glaswegian (from Glasgow) accent - although since being in the South of the UK for a while he had lost some of it.

When you look at the unfortunate events of 9/11 there were so many international victims. I just feel we need to remember that we are one world - we may all look different but our hearts beat to the same beat - to life - to live and to support each other.

A death in the family unfortunately brings realities home. It makes us realise that we have a finite life. I remember the movie Phenomenon - without giving away the story, close to the end, the actor John Travolta suggests that once he has eaten an apple he takes the energy with him. I would like to think that the good things we do, remember and influence travel with us.
In the case of families our good deeds are remembered by others. Any struggle for good demonstrate strength and a continumum of love.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear friend,
My sincere condolances on the loss within your family. I must admit however, your posting made a great read before bed. I have known you for a very long time and whether the name is Bernadette D.G. or Ek Ong Kaar Kaur I recognize the beautiful soul/spirit within the words. Please give my regards to your family when you next chat with them.

Shalom-

David Hermann

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

God Bless all, even Guru Gobind Singh Shah -e- shah had bemukh sikhs to tackle but like my friend said truth is above all and so did realise 40 muktas. No matter what ever we do or how wise we become, we have still distances to go before we face truth face to face. thy gracious Guru Nanak, in 1st paure of Japji,if Iam correct, 'sehas sianpan Lakh hove tan ek na chale naal' no matter how wise / learned i may think i am or have become yet if acquisition of knowledge is giving me Know-all attitude I have surely not learned about the right path
Gurfateh
Earth worm of guru

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Ek Ong Kaar Kaur

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I really liked them for their clarity and sincerity.

I first learnt about the phenomenon of Escape velocity during one of my middle school Physics lessions. It was quiet exciting to learn that if an object is thrown into sky with particular velocity it will never return to earth's surface and escape into the infinite universe. So are teachings of Guru that would eventually liberate human from gravitational pull of five passions which are the cause of cycles of births and deaths over human's lifetime.

However, anything that is thrown into space less than escape velocity with be returned to earth with same crushing speed (everyone knows!).

May all the seekers be blessed with faith to escape and mearge with the infinite...

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ek om kaar, never heard of ek ong kaar.. what does it mean?

2:50 AM  
Blogger alvindar86 said...

Beautifull !!
this is the third time i'm reading this post and i can assure you it's one of the most beautifully written posts of yours.

It's nice to read ur posts again after some time, because the words you write only make meaning and sense when i have enough experiences to compare them with.

Gurfateh

8:11 PM  

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