1981 in Laguna Beach, California
I don't remember the woman being as pretty as this internet photo, but she was wearing a sari and she smiled. In fact the woman I remember had an exuberant grin as if she'd just been born again and was sharing the love.
While living in Laguna Beach I had a pretty idyllic job one summer, working with a children's program housed in the cozy American Legion Hall, just a block from the South Coast Highway. In the afternoons I took the kids outside for activities in the shady yard, surrounded by a picket fence. We didn't have a view of the beach, but we were right across the street from one of the better known Hare Krishna Temples in the States.
Festivities at the Temple
One summer day, the Temple had a daylong celebration. Saffron colored robes and colorful saris flooded the steps and yard. The area was alive with waving banners and flowing fabric. The smells of exotic foods and the sounds of chanting, drumming and clinking finger cymbals drifted towards our yard. When I took the kids out in the afternoon, the kids were drawn towards the fence to watch. They looked on quietly with no questions, since they were used to seeing people come and go near the building across the street. "There are the Krishnas." I heard one child remind another.
My Own Memories
I let the kids watch a moment, but then encouraged them towards painting and games in the yard. I felt uncomfortable. It was only a few years earlier that I had my first encounter in an airport when oddly dressed men with shaved heads, smiled and offered their "books" with awkward enthusiasm.
Over the years I continued to observe Hare Krishna in other public places, always cheerful as they shared their music and chanting. But I felt leery when they came too close. I knew there might be an invitation to a meal or a meeting or just another book. I knew the people chanting across the street were no threat, I just didn't understand them. Besides, the kids were obviously not bothered. They happily left the fence and got caught up in other activities.
By late afternoon, the Krishna celebration had thinned. A little drumming lingered in the air, mixing oddly with the patriotic tunes of a tap dance class that had just started up in the Legion Hall. As the festival participants dispersed, some strolled down the sidewalk along the fence. I noticed one woman draped in bright fabric catching the eye of 2 children. She paused to greet them with an almost trance-like smile. As I moved towards the kids I heard the woman's eager voice, "Can you say, Hare?" I felt annoyed as I approached the grinning woman who leaned in to hear one boy mumble a response. "Can you say Hare?!" She returned with twice the volume and enthusiasm. I ushered the kids away and gave the woman a quick nod that could be interpreted in many ways. Mostly I didn't want the kids to feel my discomfort. Why should they learn to be uncomfortable or afraid of people who are different? Such a teachable moment, and I took the easy route by simply reminding kids not to talk to strangers.
Thank you Krishna Woman...for making me think. I didn't like your enthusiasm that day. You could have just smiled to the kids without inviting them to chant. But I have thought of you over the years and I wonder how many times you have been misunderstood. 32 years ago, I thought I was open and accepting of people of other races, religions and sexual orientation. And I feel like I have become even more so over the years. But my memory of you has made me realize that after 32 years, I don't really know any more about Hare Krishna than I did in 1981. Why is that?
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers