One afternoon in 1986, I was inching my way along in traffic on an LA freeway when I heard Ram Dass being interviewed on KPFK radio. That was trippy. I hadn’t heard anything about Ram Dass in years. But the interview pulled me in, and he was giving a talk the next night at the Santa Monica Civic for Seva Foundation. That interview was electric – like a light flipping on.
The next evening, my husband and I got to the Civic Auditorium early and stayed late. All I remember is more than a thousand of us singing “Jubilate Deo” in a six-part round, and the darshan line afterwards where everyone got a hug, and meeting the cluster of volunteers who helped put it together. We got info to register for his upcoming summer retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, and from that night on, I spent time around Ram Dass every chance I got.
Late that fall, with a baby in one arm, I put up my hand at a seva group meeting and volunteered to be coordinator of a conference that Ram Dass was developing for Seva in Los Angeles. A bright-spirited, talented, rag-tag steering committee worked on the project for more than a year, with Ram Dass coming down from the Bay Area monthly to join the process, fine-tune our would-be brilliance, and guide the vision.
Our efforts culminated in a remarkable 3-day program featuring panels and breakouts led by dozens of wise, skillful, passionate, dedicated individuals whose lives exemplified the heart of service. Whether working for tribal justice or caring for AIDS babies, stopping war in Central America or gang violence in Watts, planting organic gardens or tending the dying, this astonishing assembly of souls was living proof that the City of Angels is exactly what its name says it is.
The entire experience was transformative. Along the way, immersed in Ram Dass’s teachings on loving and serving, our Seva group met for weekly potlucks and meditations at Ralph Sanchez’s little Santa Monica apartment. Pods of us cooked meals to serve and share with folks in shelters, and planted trees, and took groups of troubled kids on hikes.
Time flew as householder dharma became the path, and a few months after the conference, Bill and I moved to Oregon with our 1-year-old daughter. Between raising a family, working, and scrambling to support ancient forest defenders, for a while I was lucky to attend a retreat or workshop every year or two. Precious cassette tapes would show up in the mailbox now and then. And every chance we had, we organized Ram Dass programs in Portland, when he was available and wanted to come and I could juggle my schedule to fit. Every bit of that juggling was grace.
Then, in 1997, a massive stroke altered Ram Dass’s path. For the first few years, he could barely find speech, much less travel. In 2000, it was such a joy when we were able to have him come to Portland for a packed event, and again in 2003 or ’04. Each time it felt like a huge welcome home to be with him again.
Then he landed in Maui, but his health crashed and it soon became clear he’d never be back to the mainland. An era had ended.
In 2006, one morning the realization sank in with a deep sigh that I probably wouldn’t see Ram Dass again. My kids were teenagers, money was tight, and traveling to Maui wasn’t even a remote dream for me. A huge wave of gratitude washed over me, softly tinged with sadness, for the incredible grace of having had so many opportunities to serve him and Seva Foundation, and to learn so much from Ram Dass over the years. That wave was tender and personal and I didn’t mention it to anyone, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Coincidentally, just a few days after that, a friend called one morning completely out of the blue. He wanted to offer something to me as teacher-dana, he said, for support I had offered as he navigated a difficult path. He knew how deeply Ram Dass had affected my life, and he had decided to gift me with travel and a ticket to a small retreat Ram Dass was offering in Haiku, Maui. I had lived in Haiku back in 1970, in my young, wide-open days, and it held a sweet place deep in my heart. But that was incidental icing on the cake. Most of all, the chance see Ram Dass again was amazing, and I would have gone anywhere. “That’s so kind,” I replied to my caller. “Thank you so much.” Wow. What a blessing, I thought. So wildly uncanny. That tide of gratitude rose again.
But the very next day, this friend called back. When I answered the phone, he stumbled over his words, “I’m really sorry, but … I’ve changed my mind. I thought it over, and for reasons I can’t explain, I’ve decided to … retract my offer.” Wow, I thought, taking a breath. This is really trippy. This friend was a quirky, very complicated person, and this flip-flop wasn’t entirely out of character. Oddly, it didn’t even entirely surprise me. “No problem,” I said, “that’s fine too. Thank you so much for even having had the thought.”
Just right, I thought, as we said goodbye. It’s all a mirage, a bubble, a flash of lightning in a dark sky … here one moment, gone the next. It was such a perfect, gentle reminder. Everything changes and that was that.
Except not quite. The next morning, my complicated friend called yet again. This time he said, “I’m sorry again. I’ve been confused and I know this is weird, but I changed my mind again. I just bought your tickets and paid for the retreat.” He paused, “I hope it’s still okay.” “Of course it is,” I said. “And thank you so much, again.” His struggle back and forth had clearly been challenging for him. Who knew what the next phone call would bring?
But there was no next call, and a month or two later, I was off to Maui. At the retreat, I swirled between fields, present and not present, drifting between here and who knows where, feeling strange to be there at all. Ram Dass’s beloved Indian brother, KK Sah, was there that year, and, talking with KK one afternoon, I said sort of sheepishly, “It’s so weird. I keep forgetting it’s Ram Dass, I keep thinking he’s Maharajji. Like Ram Dass isn’t really here, he’s just channeling Maharajji.” KK smiled. “Oh yes,” he agreed, nodding. “This is true. No difference.”
After that, a hidden curtain seemed to open and between 2006 and 2019, I had the opportunity to see Ram Dass at least 15 times. Last February, I was at the ohana at his house when his condition had taken a deep plunge, and it seemed very likely that he might slip away while I was there. But of course, that changed. On my last evening, we ate strawberry ice cream and cake, then sat wrapped in bhav with Lakshman, Priti, and Dassi as Raghu chanted in front of the puja.
A few months later, in July, despite being very frail, Ram Dass made the grueling journey from Maui to Taos, New Mexico. He hadn’t left Maui in years, but he was determined to make it to Taos for the consecration of the beautiful new Hanuman temple at the Neem Karoli Baba ashram. Sitting on the floor right next to his feet as we waited our turns at the Mother puja, in a flashing timeless impulse, I set the rose petals I’d been given for the ceremony on his knee. He barely noticed, then closed them in his hand just as he was wheeled up to the altar. He offered them with his own on the altar of the Mother.
In December, at the last retreat, the veil seemed diaphanous, translucent. But his eyes still sparkled and his smile was luminous, his heart light and open wide. And he swam in the ocean on the last morning surrounded by a flotilla of laughing faces ranging from chubby-cheeked babies to gray-haired grandmas, chanting his ocean mantra: “Oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! Oh joy! oh joy! oh joy!”
Less than two weeks later, on December 22 – the first full day of Winter and the first day of Hannukah – Ram Dass finally slipped free and left his body, free of boundaries, free of pain, free of even the incarnation of Ram Dass. Many of us have just begun adjusting, wondering what that even means, and awed at what he meant in our lives. It will all come clear in time. For now, our sadhana is simple, just as Maharajji said: love, serve, and remember.
One of Ram Dass’s favorite songs was one he learned in childhood, as so many of us did – a children’s song infused with layers of meaning we never dreamed at the time. He often hummed it or sang it as part of a kirtan:
Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
Pranams, Ram Dass. Endless love.