The day of the cancer call I knew we wouldn’t be going to India. For years India has been on my list of places I must go and the trip was the one and only request for my upcoming 60th birthday. I thought perhaps this year I finally might use my new passport for the first time. The longing to walk on Indian soil was intense, like an invitation to return to a long ago home. In March everything shifted and I allowed myself to accept the fact that life was directing me to travel in a different way this year. As much as it I wished it were otherwise, I embraced the idea that India must wait.
A week after we had the official “defer the trip” discussion, I arrived at school and noticed platters of fresh flowers and leaves sitting on the counter of the PreK class. Chalk drawings were outlined in the doorways of the classroom. One of the students and her mother had planned a day to celebrate Indian culture with the children. Soon chapatis took shape on the table and Indian dancing livened up the circle of children. It was the flowers that kept drawing my attention back to the classroom as small groups of children sat on the floor, carefully placing flower pieces within the chalk lines. Inquiring about the history of the flower tradition, I found out that the designs are part of the ten-day Onam festival in Kerala, a state in India. Onam is held in honor of the beloved prehistoric king Mahabali who, as the story goes, was allowed to come back for a yearly visit. The circular flower designs, called pookalam, are created near the doorway to welcome the king’s return. A layer of flowers is added on to the design each day of the celebration. Pookalam are elaborate designs that require teamwork, patience, and creativity. Interestingly, it is a festival that brings people together, regardless of race or religion.
When I saw the pookalam being constructed on the floor of our PreK class, they reminded me of the intricate Tibetan sand paintings that take days to complete. I’ve been told that the intention of the sand paintings is to remind us of the ephemeral nature of life, that the final act of sweeping the designs away is to teach us about non-attachment. I don’t know if the pookalam have a symbolic meaning attached to their dismantling process, but I can’t help thinking that when the festival is over and the flowers are taken away, there’s a good bit of reflection on the transitory nature of life.
Learning about this tradition of making art with fresh flowers helped me accept life’s ever changing quality. Instead of being disappointed about not traveling to India this year, it left me feeling grateful for the chance to learn a bit more about a place that continues to resonate with my heart. The pookalam brought me back to the present moment of my life, breathing in its sweetness, appreciating the combination of experiences that add texture and delight to each and every day.