I made it through the fall semester! My final papers had to be postmarked by December 27, a barbaric deadline about which I still harbor resentment. Because did I finish early so I could relax and enjoy the holidays? No. I was at the post office on the 27th with my three manila envelopes, and now the homework for winter semester has already begun. Before I get too busy, though, I want to tell you about an encounter I had with the goddess Kali.
First, some backstory. Last fall I studied several Hindu goddesses, including Kali, who is fearsome. Her skin is black, sometimes blue-black, and blood drips from her bared fangs. She has four arms. In one hand she brandishes a bloodied sword, and in the hand below that she holds a severed head. Another hand is raised in the “fear not” gesture, and another is extended, offering boons. They say she uses the sword to slay demons and to cut away whatever we don’t need, what holds us back, especially the ego nonsense symbolized by the severed head–all that thinky self-talk that paralyzes us. Kali is powerful and complex, and despite her alarming appearance, she is very much on our side.
Ok, so when I was in California for class last December, I thanked my Hindu Traditions professor for recommending one particular book about goddesses. He said, “I’m glad you like it. Which goddesses have you met so far?” I said, “Durga and Lakshmi, and I’m about to get acquainted with Kali.” A few days later, after the session was over, I boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Chicago. It was a Southwest flight, which meant open seating, and by some December miracle the flight wasn’t full. I took an aisle seat in a row with an empty middle seat, and an African-American woman sitting by the window. The woman wore a red and black tunic with a tribal-looking design. We said hello-hello, and isn’t it nice to have all this space? I offered her some of the cashews I was just opening. She said No thanks, she’d been eating almonds and was sick of them. I said, Well if you get hungry for cashews you know where they are. Then we left each other alone. I had some papers to read, and when I looked up, a few hours had gone by.
The woman and I started chatting again. She told me she was on her way home from Maui. She’d been on a pilgrimage to a healing site on top of a mountain, a place where a rainforest waterfall spilled down through seven successive pools, and the energy was electric. She’d also been to a small temple where a Hindu monk and his wife lived, and she’d participated in a ritual called Ho’oponopono. She taught me a little of it. She said, “Say, ‘I forgive myself, I accept myself, I love myself, I bless myself.'” So I said all that with her. She kept going, telling me about how she’d been swimming in the ocean with whales and how angry she was about the dolphins dying in Florida, until finally, when the flight was nearly over, I said, “What do you do? What’s your work?” She said she was a natural healer. I thought, Huh, how bout that. Then on an impulse I said, “My name’s Joanna. What’s your name?” She said, “Kali.”
I gasped, and I’m sure my face showed my shock. Evidently in reply, she said, “Yeah, like the goddess.” Then I managed to speak, and out it all babbled, about how I was studying Hindu goddesses and was just about to read about Kali. The woman nodded, entirely unsurprised, and said, “I wondered if there wasn’t something going on when you sat down and were so friendly.” I spluttered something else, still staring in open astonishment at her Kali-esque skin and the Kali colors of her tunic, and she said, “Yeah, and it’s extra weird, because I was named after my great-grandmother Kali, who was a slave, and delivered me, and there wasn’t even a k-sound in her tribal language.” I spluttered further, and she said, “You know what, I’m going to put your name in the ocean.” At that I finally put a sentence together and said, “I’m going to hold your name in my heart!”
Then the flight was over. When I got home I opened the book about goddesses, and sure enough, I had stopped reading on the first page of the Kali chapter, the page with those four letters blazoned across the top, K-A-L-I. Kali, the goddess who was a woman who was a goddess. She sat next to me for four hours. She’s a healer. She put my name in the ocean. I’ll bet anything she’d do the same for you. All you have to do is ask.