“The Brattleboro Chronicles”
by Lalita Madhava devi dasi
It’s been nearly a month since we first posted our story and an announcement calling for preachers to help us spread the sankirtana movement of Lord Caitanya. And what an incredible month it’s been! Not only have devotees come forward from Vermont, New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts, but we have received numerous letters from devotees all around the country – from those looking for a project and wanting more information about relocating to Brattleboro, from traveling book distributors offering to come through here during the warmer months, and from kind well-wishers simply offering much needed words of support and encouragement.
Among the devotees living in the immediate area, we have all gradually been connecting with one another – writing back and forth, talking on the phone and, one by one, meeting in person. The cafe at the famous Brattleboro Food Co-op has proved to be a great venue for this – despite the indignity I suffered getting busted for surreptitiously using my cell phone (not heeding the numerous signs on the walls displaying a picture of a cell phone in the center of forbidding red circle with a diagonal red line through it!) while anxiously waiting for these holy meets-in-the-service-of-the-Lord!
On one occasion I sat for over an hour waiting to meet Dola Yatra, an Israeli lady studying in Brattleboro, not knowing that a semi truck had crashed and burned (literally) on nearby I-91, which had consequently been closed, and that it took her over an hour to drive one mile from there to the co-op. But we finally got together and talked for a long time and resolved to work cooperatively in the service of Srila Prabhupada. Then, just a few days later, Michele drove down from her home 60 miles north of here, and we all again met at the co-op, getting to know one another and establishing a basis from which to go forth.
Meanwhile, I’d also been corresponding with another older devotee who responded to our posting, Sundarkara Prabhu, who lived just northwest of Brattleboro and regularly held inter-denominational get-togethers at his home. Without ever having met any of us, he graciously invited us all over for kirtana and prasadam. Craving kirtana and the association of Vaishnavas, we eagerly accepted his kind invitation. My neighbor, the now-famous Maria, who’d been planning to accompany us, unexpectedly had to work and so gave up her previously-reserved spot in our car, which was then taken by Dola Yatra.
Dola Yatra arrived before we were ready and patiently sat reading Bhagavad-gita in our living room while waiting for us to get our entire unwieldy family dressed, booted, coated and out the door once and for all – an event not unlike attempting to eat spaghetti with a spoon. As I ran around frantically searching for a diaper and some clothes for my granddaughter Arya, who had somehow escaped from her mother’s grasp after her bath and had come running out of the bathroom, Dola Yatra calmly called my attention to the verse she had opened up to – 18.61. “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” Though preoccupied with worrying what might happen to my expensive wool rug if I did not hurry up and find a diaper, I was struck by how deeply meaningful and significant that verse was to our situation here in Vermont and to all of our lives. Somehow each of us was strongly drawn – directed in our “wanderings” by the Lord – to this wonderful area, though it is a place without an ISKCON temple and ostensibly away from “the association of devotees.” Yet now here we all were, miraculously finding one another, forging friendships and coming together for the sacred process of shravanam kirtanam…..
So it was that we set out early Saturday evening, despite the heavy snowfall that had begun late that morning, on our way to Townshend, Vermont. At the same time, Sri Krishna, an old Gita-nagari devotee, and his wife Michele, were heading down from the north. Sri Krishna is a native Vermonter, but I can say with certainty that the rest of us “flatties” (short for “flat-landers,” a term used somewhat disparagingly by native Vermonters for those of us from more southern parts of New England or the U. S.) would definitely have hunkered down and watched the gorgeous, sparkling snowfall through our tall windows and would never have ventured out in such intense weather for any reason other than the promise of kirtana!
But, indeed, it was the mystically compelling force of the Lord’s Holy Name that drew us out despite all material considerations. With baby Arya bundled to within an inch of her life, we all strapped ourselves into our seat belts, uttered a prayer for protection to Lord Nrsimhadeva, and set out, heading northwest on Route 30, which runs along the boulder-strewn West River. The snow was spectacularly beautiful, with thick, fat, moist flakes accumulating rapidly and completely blanketing the bare trees….. and the road. The winter beauty as we drove up Route 30 was actually magical and enthralling, and I think I must have remarked at least a dozen times on the breathtaking beauty of the scene unfolding before us.
Driving at barely 30 mph, it took us around six days and five nights (I’m just slightly exaggerating) to go the the roughly 20 miles to Sundarkara’s home in Townshend. But with caution and reduced speed, we made it there without event. Or, I should say, made it almost there. The last half mile was a steep, narrow, winding dirt road leading up to the house. Nearly half a dozen times we bravely started at the bottom, only to get a hundred feet or so up the hill, lose traction and slide into the snowbanks on either side of the road. And then have to half-slide our way back down the hill. After several such attempts (during which Dola Yatra somehow felt compelled to tell me to try putting it in drive when I was trying low gear and to try putting it in low gear when I was trying drive – and to repeatedly mention that, had we taken her car, we would certainly have made it!) we sent my
16-year-old son, Radha-ramana (who, though he is now over 6’3″, I still see as a tiny 2 lb. premature baby!) off into the night, into the swirling blizzard, to go find the house and tell the Prabhu that we were stuck. Then we simply sat there and waited, not sure how to proceed.
At that time, Lord Krishna miraculously sent a man in a big, new, fancy Chevy pickup with a snowplow on the front – “coincidentally” the only vehicle passing on the road below! He stopped and asked us if we were OK. We explained that we’d never been here before, but that we were trying to get to a house at the top of the hill. The man said that although he was actually on his way somewhere else, he would plow the road for us. He instructed us to wait, and then up he went….. while we sat there with the sky now completely dark and the thick, heavy snow falling silently all around us.
Around 10 minutes later, the man with the plow came back – and in the passenger seat was none other than Radha-ramana, whom he’d found at the end of the road by Sundarkara’s house! The kind Samaritan, who turned out to be a local firefighter and an EMT, stopped at the bottom of the hill and waited as we backed down, got a “running start,” and tried again on the newly-plowed road. But, though the deep snow had been cleared, a thick layer of ice remained below it. And try as we might, we simply could not make it. As we’d gotten more of a start this time and were therefore going faster, the resultant slippery skid was also a bit more, uh, shall I say, intensified. And now, since we had gotten farther up the hill, we also had a farther distance to skid and slide back down – backwards. (Somebody, please report that last sentence to the Department of Redundancy Department.)
At that point the previously stoic Dola Yatra (desensitized, we would have thought, by growing up amidst all of the political goings-on in Israel and thus immune to the relatively minor perils of a mere icy road) completely lost her composure, abruptly announced that she was bailing out and suddenly opened the back door of the car and proceeded to unceremoniously jump into the deep snowbank on the side of the road! Though I had tried to explain to her that, although I’d been in Florida for a long time, I had grown up in New England and had thus learned to drive in these very conditions, it was all to no avail. She was quite apparently fearing for her life!
Just at that moment, while the firefighter protectively remained waiting at the bottom of the hill, the flickering headlights of Sundarkara’s truck appeared, coming around the bend. He stopped and waited as we backed and slid and skidded and backed and skidded and slid the rest of the way down. Meanwhile, our Bhakta Samaritan (performing devotional service in the form of facilitating kirtana, whether he knew it or not!) had taken it upon himself to plow out a safe parking spot off the road for our car so that it would not be hit while we left it parked there.
Dola Yatra had by this time climbed out of the snowbank, and she and Arya and I piled into the cab of Sundarkara’s naturally “air-conditioned” truck (“air-conditioned” courtesy of the shattered back window!), while my kids climbed into the snowy open bed for an adventurous ride – in a blizzard in the dead of winter! Krishna lost her balance and was momentarily knocked over when Sundarkara began driving before she was fully situated, but, great sport that she is, she quickly righted herself with little more than a small muffled screech. Krishna is a great soul and gets all credit for being a good sport, even if it was actually the frigid rush of air when the truck abruptly sped off that took her breath away and prevented her from any further vocalizations!
And up the hill we went!
Once there, we made our way out of the the truck, up the driveway, and up the yard’s terraced stone steps (with a great deal more slipping and sliding) toward the house. I have to honestly admit that by this point, after everything that had happened, I was beginning to feel decidedly untranscendental. I was snarkily annoyed with Dola Yatra for the backseat driving and for jumping out of the car. The ankle-length hem of my wildly impractical black velvet dress (what was I thinking?) was becoming completely caked with snow. And furthermore, I suspected that my hair almost certainly resembled the fur of a wet afghan hound.
But up the yard we trudged, across the porch and through the front door….. THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR AND DIRECTLY INTO THE SPIRITUAL WORLD!
The scene we beheld was nothing short of amazing….. a beautiful, sattvic space with with polished wood floors, post-and-beam ceilings, dozens of luxuriant plants and flickering candles everywhere! The walls were covered with pictures of Krishna and Lord Caitanya, and huge, close-up photographs of the beautiful faces of Radha-Vrindavanachandra from New Vrindavana. But just around an L-shaped corner, the true opulence of the room remained out of sight. There we beheld a spectacular floor-to-ceiling altar with numerous gorgeous Deities and pictures of the many forms of the Lord. We were just blown away.
Once we’d caught our breath from the adventures of the trip and taken in the beauty of the altar, the evening’s agenda was set. We would first help our host finish cooking, then honor prasadam and then settle down for kirtana.
Sundarkara Prabhu’s dinner offering was the next heart-warming surprise: delicious rice, dal, salad, kale-and-potato subji, fresh humous and buttery chapatis – all served by candlelight around a huge octagonal dining table. We all sat and talked and honored the wonderful, nurturing meal prepared for us.
After taking prasadam, we all went to sit in front of the altar and have kirtana. And how uplifting it was! I have to admit that after the sheer hugeness of Alachua, with hundreds of devotees in the Sunday Feast kirtana, and even 25-50 people attending our Friday Programs, I had forgotten that you could have a kirtana with any fewer people! I had forgotten the special intimacy of personally connecting with just a handful of Vaishnavas to chant and meditate on the Holy Names. Sundarkara modestly claimed to not be a kirtana leader, but we soon found out that his was an exhibition of the “false modesty” described in Pride and Prejudice to which I am so fond of referring! He led a wonderfully meditative kirtana to the traditional melody of that following the Guruvastaka prayers chanted at mangala arati. Sri Krishna Prabhu chanted the Jaya Radha Madhava prayers, followed by Hare Krishna. Even I had a spontaneous inspiration in this smaller group! With big-gun kirtaniyas like Laksmi-Nrsimha, Badahari, Vaiyasaki and so many others in the Alachua area and coming to our programs, it was pretty intimidating to even think of leading a kirtana! But I chanted the mantra to the melody I have used for a year and a half to put my granddaughter to sleep or to calm her when she is upset. (And, for the record, it apparently worked this time, too….. After that manic period that comes just before a toddler sleeps, during which she was running around trying to take away everyone’s instruments and hoard them for herself, she settled peacefully into her mother’s arms!). And then at the end, Sundarkara chanted the Nrsimha prayers.
By this time it was getting late and we still had to think about the drive home. We all expressed our appreciation for one another and said our goodbyes. Sri Krishna, the Vermonter with his studded snow tires, ferried us down to our car which was parked safely in it’s little custom-plowed nook at the bottom of the hill. The night was dark and silent, Arya fell immediately to sleep in her car seat, and we all headed back to Brattleboro, feeling exhilarated, inspired and enlivened by the mercy of the Lord in “directing our wanderings” and arranging for us to find one another in His service.