With Amma in Chicago

Last year was the first time I attended Amma’s Chicago area programs. I had heard about the Center there for years and was excited to see it for myself. The site had once been a Seventh Day Adventist college. When I drove onto the property, I found myself on a tree-lined street of homes, homes that had once been faculty housing. I burst into tears. I have been to many of Amma’s ashrams and centers but this felt like being in a town, a town dedicated to Amma’s ideals of compassion and service.

Many of the original buildings had been remodeled and a new program hall had been built. The property was very large and a good deal of it was farm land. There was a large echinacea field as well as fields devoted to growing herbs and vegetables. I had such a good experience that year. Attending the Chicago programs is now a top priority for me.

This year, I arrived at MA Center-Chicago on June 20. I knew I was close when, in the distance, I saw the big blue water tower emblazoned with Amma’s logo. When I turned into the property and drove past those first houses, I felt as if I had come home.

Amma wouldn’t arrive at the program for another hour, so after saying hi to my son and daughter, Sreejit and Chaitanya, I headed to the fields. One of the first things I saw was a butterfly. That greeting became even more significant to me when it turned out to be the only butterfly I saw that day.

Prior to going to Chicago last year, I had seen a short aerial video of the Center’s echinacea field.

Seeing that field in person was a major goal for last year’s visit and I was eager to see it again this year. I walked and walked but couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt confused. It had been such a large field; they couldn’t have transplanted it, could they?

I did find the hoop house. There were so many more plants in it than last year.

I eventually gave up trying to find the echinacea field and returned to the program hall. When I asked someone about it later, I discovered the field was further away than I had thought. After attending Amma’s meditation, I headed outside again. Before long, I was able to find it. Last year I had been fascinated seeing the many stages of growth, from buds to full flower. The programs were held earlier in June this year and I only saw three open flowers in the whole field.  A lot of nettles and milkweed grew along with the echinacea. Those plants draw bees, butterflies and other insects to the field.

These beautiful flowers also were growing in the echinacea field. If you know what they are, please tell me!

From there, I strolled to a field of herbs.

And then walked to the vegetable field. I really liked the signs they had created to show what was growing in the row.

This fall, MA Center- Chicago is opening a GreenFriends Montessori School. It will focus on nature-based learning and peace education. As I gazed at this field I imagined the children helping to plant and care for the vegetables.

Beyond the vegetable field, there was an orchard. This photo shows only half of it. The trees had grown a lot since I had seen them last.

After visiting the fields, I began to walk back to the program hall. On my way, I saw a bird trying to pull a worm from the ground. (Or at least I think that was what it was doing!) Then another bird flew over my head a few times. I felt like it was “dive bombing” me. Moments later, I saw a bird house that was similar to the ones I have at home. It was only four or five feet off the ground. As I walked by it, a baby bird was looking out of the opening. I think there was another baby behind it. It must have been the mother or father bird that had been flying at me, concerned I was going to hurt the babies.

*****

As I sat in the program hall that day, ideas for designing a cluster of trees, shrubs and ground covers for our Greenbelt Restoration site in Seattle started coming into my mind. I thought about it throughout the day. My dreams during the night were incessant, and were all about the Greenbelt. The next morning, I located the children’s program room and drew my ideas on paper. I looked forward to returning to Seattle and doing the research necessary to determine whether or not my plan was viable.

*****

As I am writing this post, I am struck by how little time I spent near Amma in Chicago. I met Amma in summer of 1989. In the early years, I spent hour after hour sitting close, mesmerized. At some point, I started doing seva (volunteer work) throughout the year, and during the programs. That era lasted more than 20 years. Now I find that I still want to be with Amma, but I want it to be in a way that I can be immersed in nature at the same time. I’m reminded of the Bible verse that says  To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” I am allowing my life to unfold. I feel close to Amma whether I am sitting next to her, being held in her arms, or walking in the fields taking in the glory of nature.

*****

Some of my favorite experiences in this year’s Chicago program occurred because Eknath was there. I don’t remember when I first saw Eknath at Amma’s programs but it must have been 10-15 years ago. I still think of him as a boy but he is probably his 30’s by now. Eknath is autistic. I was once told that when he first met Amma he couldn’t talk. That changed long ago. He often blurts out statements that make everyone, including Amma, laugh. One time he told Amma she should have a boyfriend. Another time, he went to her during darshan (darshan is the time she blesses people by giving hugs) and told her he wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Amma called someone from the Western Cafe and told them to make him a sandwich and bring it back to her.

Another memory I have of him occurred in the Amritapuri (India) auditorium. One day as I was walking to the auditorium, I heard a gut wrenching wail. Some instinctual part of me knew that it was Eknath and that someone had told him he had to leave India and return to the U.S. He cried with a profound level of despair that couldn’t help but affect those around him.

He is probably best known for going up to people and pulling up both sides of his mouth with his index fingers and telling them to smile. He emanates joy. He usually has earphones on, listening to Amma bhajans. Sometimes he sings along. When Amma and the swamis are singing, he gets so excited that he starts jumping and jumping and jumping. Occasionally, the swamis keep their songs going much longer than they would normally. His joy is infectious.

Eknath was doing all of those things during the second or third evening program in Chicago. Someone handed him a microphone and asked him to sing. He sang “What a Wonderful World.” (Lyrics) I doubt I was the only one in the room that was crying.

Here is a video of Louis Armstrong singing that song.

Eknath was then asked to sing another song. This time he chose “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” but he changed it to “Amma Claus is Coming to Town.” (Lyrics) Needless to say, hearing those lyrics applied to Amma was hilarious.

I am thankful that Eknath is in this world

*****

Every day with Amma is packed with experiences. In addition, this year I’ve had the chance to be with my son and daughter during the programs. That normally happens only when I’m in India. Life is good.

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