Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Blue Balloon

Recently a dear friend, Valerie Gladstone, passed away due to cancer. My husband Adrian and I bonded with Valerie over many things: yoga and meditation, Buddhism, spirituality, writing, music and movies, and gossip-filled brunches. Valerie's physical form was compact, but her presence was large and radiant and loving and gentle -- but, if provoked, could also be sharp. I recall such a moment transpiring one afternoon when Valerie took us to see the amazing Spanish singer Buika at Central Park Summer Stage. Valerie was a respected writer and well-connected in the music, dance and arts communities, so she got us VIP seats in the press section. A young man nearby, probably inebriated or high, was shouting over the music and stomping his feet and clapping his hands in a sad and misguided pantomime of flamenco dance. Valerie, a professional critic and a personal acquaintance of Buika, was not willing to suffer this fool gladly, and she promptly marched up to him and informed him that he was distracting everyone around him from the performance and asked him to stop—which he did. Only Valerie had the courage to do what everyone else in the vicinity secretly wanted to do.

Adrian and I felt fortunate not only to share friendship and laughter with Valerie when she was in good health, but to also be there with her at numerous points during the last weeks of her life. As her cancer progressed rapidly, we visited her several times in the hospital and then the hospice. I went to see Valerie about 24 hours before she passed, and at that point I shared with her some guidance drawn from the Buddhist tradition on how to have a peaceful transition. Later, when we learned that she had passed the next day, the news came that her transition had, indeed, been remarkably peaceful.

Today Adrian and I went to assist in moving to their new home Valerie's two beautiful Abyssinian cats, who had been her cherished companions. Before we departed Valerie's old apartment with the cats, Adrian was very struck by a small metal statue of Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva. The woman who was looking after the apartment encouraged him to take it as a memento, something to keep in our home to remind us of Valerie.

With cats safely transported and curiously exploring their new, happy home, we headed downtown to meet our friend Stuart for brunch. Afterwards, we strolled back to Stuart's apartment to pass a bit of time before going to see a movie. As we approached the corner of 28th Street and 3rd Avenue, I spotted a single, blue balloon that was drifting slowly up 3rd Avenue, about five or six stories above the street. I stopped Adrian and Stuart and drew their attention to it.

The last time that Adrian and I saw Valerie before she went into the hospital, we met for brunch on the Upper East Side, and then afterwards we strolled down 3rd Avenue. There was a street festival happening on 3rd Avenue that day, and the street was decked with colorful arrays of balloons stretching across the intersections. Adrian and I are both into contemplative photography, and we kept stopping to take photos of the balloons and the interesting way they were framed against the sky and the tall city buildings. We also stopped to take a sidewalk photo with Valerie—which would prove to be our last.

Cut back to today, on the corner of 28th Street. As we watched the blue balloon make its way up 3rd Avenue overhead, it stopped above the intersection where we were standing and began to descend. It came down to street level and went right into the rush of traffic going up 3rd Avenue. We kept expecting one of the numerous buses or automobiles speeding by to catch hold of the balloon and pop it, but we watched in amusement as it danced between, around, in front of, beside, and behind each of them as they passed. When the traffic light switched and it was our turn to cross the intersection, we watched the balloon ascend again and cross over 3rd Avenue to the sidewalk ahead of us. As we arrived on the other side of 3rd Avenue, the balloon again descended toward the ground, reversed direction to head south, and rolled gently to a stop on the sidewalk directly in front of my feet.

Feeling that I was obviously meant to pick up this balloon, I did so, and we carried it with us for the remainder of our walk. We made nervous, half-joking, half-serious remarks about the balloon being a sort of uncanny communication, and we remembered the day not long ago when we had walked with Valerie on 3rd Avenue photographing balloons, just before her last bout of radiation and her hospitalization.

We stopped at an Indian store on 28th Street before going to Stuart's apartment, and since we had the statue in our backpack we asked the proprietor to explain the significance of Nataraja in Hindu cosmology and symbolism. Nataraja, "Lord of Dance," is the dancing form of Shiva, and his dance represents the destruction of ignorance and old forms and the promise of creation and new life.

Stuart and Adrian kept asking me what I intended to do with the blue balloon, and I said that I planned set it free again. As we walked back towards Stuart's building, I asked if his building happens to have a roof deck. It does, and I suggested that we stop there to release the balloon back into the air. The roof deck was adorned with couches, and we sat outside and enjoyed the fresh air for a few minutes before the moment came to release back to its destiny the mysterious balloon that had come to visit. The roof deck was open on three sides, and I held up the balloon to see which direction the wind might want to carry it. The wind was shifting in an uncertain way, leaving me unsure of which way it might go. On a sudden impulse and ready to stop deliberating, I walked to the nearest edge of the building and set the balloon free, and it drifted slowly eastward, toward a row of tall buildings a couple of blocks away. I raised my camera phone and snapped a photo of it as it moved laterally toward them.

Suddenly, the balloon stopped drifting laterally and began to move straight downward again. We leaned over the side of the building and watched its descent, which was so direct as to seem almost purposeful.

Now, as it happens, during the past week I have been listening intently to an audiobook version of Paramahansa Yogananda's spiritual classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi," and have been dazzled by its stories of Yogananda's early life and his many enigmatic encounters with the great saints and yogis of India. Adrian has studied and practiced more extensively in the tradition of Yogananda, and considers Yogananda his primary spiritual teacher. Yogananda's framed photo sits at the center of our home's meditation shrine, and I share Yogananda's birthday.

And as it happens, Yogananda's organization has a temple which sits directly adjacent to Stuart's building. Although we knew the temple was there, it didn't cross my mind when I set the balloon free. But I watched with a mixture of amusement and awe as the balloon moved directly downward and came to rest briefly, seemingly playfully, on the roof of Yogananda's temple, then lifted up again, drifted down the side of the building to the ground floor, and promptly—finally—burst against the wall of the temple. The sound of the balloon's pop echoed up to the 15th floor deck from where we watched.

I offer this merely as a factual account of what happened today, which was witnessed by two other people. How someone interprets a series of events such as this really depends, I suppose, on their personal temperament and their belief system. You might see it as a series of sheer coincidences, or you might read an uncanny sort of significance into the events. Personally, I tend to be more in the latter camp, but that's just me. I've always been something of a closeted mystic.

As I write this, Valerie's statue of Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, sits behind me, performing the tandava, the great dance through which the universe is born, maintained, and dissolved. It symbolizes the dance that happens within the heart of each living being, as we are born, grow older, and eventually die. The meaning that we seek and find in that dance is really up to us. I think Valerie found hers. And her cats, safe and warm tonight in their new home with their new human companion, have perhaps found theirs.

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