Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

January 6, 2015

Musings From the Old World

Stumbling around back home, jet-laggy and filled with images from the last two weeks in Europe.


Paris, London, Edinburgh. Guiding our children (and ourselves) through history, hurtling back centuries as we turn every corner.


In California, things are old at 70 years. At Stonehenge, the birth of Jesus Christ is yesterday.


My professor Diana Eck wrote a book about darsan, an idea I hold close to my heart. In her book Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, she explains:


“A common sight in India is a crowd of people gathered in the courtyard of a temple or at a doorway of a streetside shrine for the darsan of the deity. Darsan means ‘seeing.’ In the Hindu ritual tradition it refers especially to religious seeing, or the visual perception of the sacred. When Hindus go to a temple, they do not commonly say, ‘I am going to worship,’ but rather, ‘I am going for darsan.’


I am a Hindu at heart. I look for the divine everywhere, or at least try to stay open to it (if I can crawl out of my petty, crabby, menopausal brain long enough.) I am the child of a Jewish mother who was, along with her agnostic Anglo husband, baptized at age 30. I was raised in a Congregational Church, majored in Indo-Tibetan religion in college, and now attend an Episcopal church. I follow the breadcrumbs of enlightenment in whatever form they may appear.


I’m either flaky or extremely open-minded.


So here are some scribbles, written before the memories disappear, of some moments of darsan in unlikely places.

Darsan I: Looking for a Light

In Edinburgh, Charlotte and I stopped at McDonald’s.


We don’t do it often, but the child was starved for recognizable food. We’d walked around the frigid, blowing city on New Year’s Day. She immediately started whining about the frigid weather (understandably) but I channeled my inner Mary Poppins and determined we must have an “outing.” “Where is the hotel?” she asked every two minutes. “Right this way!” I lied cheerily. Spit-spot! This is the reason the Brits conquered the world!


We stopped at McDonald’s, which was crammed with many foreigners plus the occasional Scot soaking up last night’s Hogmanay. We stood in an unmoving line, warmed by the sight of the familiar French-fry maker. Char got a happy meal. It made her very happy indeed.


We sat in the seats that look out on the street. It being 3:15, pm, it was already getting dark. “It’s a grimy northern city,” said my Hogmanay tablemate from last night, a Liverpudlian hairdresser who would know. “But it’s charming, eh?” Absolutely. I connected with Edinburgh like an old whisky-drinking great-uncle, whom I forgot about, and only just now realized I’d always loved.


Char munched her cheeseburger. I sipped a Sprite. We looked out at the darkening street and a homeless man sitting there. We stared openly at him; I hoped the reflection of the glass would hide my open gaze.


He had King Lear-like hair — long, white and blowing crazily in the maddening wind. He sat against an overflowing trashcan. He held a cigarette and asked passers-by for a light. An impossible task. No one could see him, slouched down on the ground. And if they could, who can light a match in a gale?


Shockingly, a man stopped. He had a nice, white windbreaker on and bent to light King Lear’s cig. The wind blew and now the intermittent rain sputtered again. “No way, “ I muttered involuntarily. There is no way.


But still, the Windbreaker Man stayed, cupping his hand over Lear’s hand, trying and trying again to keep the Zippo lit. Finally, his friends called to him, and he left but gave the purple lighter to King Lear as he left.


Alone now, Lear tried the Zippo himself, but with no friendly cupping hand to assist, his cigarette remained unlit. Then shockingly, another passerby stopped, this time trying to help with his own light cigarette. They struggled together, again with no success.


The guy moved off to be with his mates, leaving his butt behind. He waved his hand, gestured, “Keep it!”


King Lear took the lit stub and finally got his own going. He chucked away the dying ember and took a deep, satisfied drag.
Charlotte munched her fries and watched the dumb show. She was as riveted as I.


I detected no judge-y virtue in the passers-by. None of my own probable attitude: “You shouldn’t be smoking! I’ll only give you some money if you promise to buy food, not drugs! Do you know about social service programs that might help you? Can I take you to the nearest shelter?” There was something stunningly un-judgmental about this story. A guy who’s down on his luck needs a light. I have a light. I will share mine with you. On a cold, darkening New Year’s Day in a grimy northern city, it might not get any simpler than that.