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I was 32 or so and reasonably convinced I had been marginalized by society and was living on the wrong planet.
I had just finished my association with the Army, and had decided I would be a far better psychiatrist than I would a soldier; this decision was a no-brainer.
I ended up in Wichita, Kansas, and left there years later with serious credentials in psychiatry, which I worked toward tirelessly every day I was there, and a husband, something I decided would vastly improve my quality of life, and it surely did.
My friends tend to be of a relatively transient nature, fitting at one stage of my life when I have one focus and one series of interests. This makes them no less precious.
While making more permanent arrangements for living, I had moved into the cheapest possible motel in Wichita, where I knew nobody except the psychiatrists who taught other people to be psychiatrists.
The young woman at the front desk reached out to me, and we chatted plenty She was of east Indian culture, and had recently arrived with her family. They had all taken various jobs and were charting out a new life in the USA.
There were (and doubtless still are) many “salt of the earth” sorts of folks in Wichita and the environs. Honest (and invariably church-going) farming types who would be courteous and welcoming, and maybe even invite an Indian family to dinner. But no “friends” who could be human beings first, with whom they could talk their collective heart.
Me, I was “veteran” of a long stay in France for school, and veteran of, well, the Army, and I had run my stay in Europe into the richest cultural experience imaginable, so it was really no surprise that we connected mightily.
They were from the region of Bangalore in the south of India, all spoke perfect English, and were excited about sharing their culture.
They had a naïveté about Kansas that touched me. I had, after all lived more of my life in the U.S. than in anywhere else, so I could serve as some level of authority. They thought having a friend who was any kind of doctor, perhaps especially a psychiatrist, was a good thing.
I fielded their questions which included “Why does it seem to bother people that I wear a nose ring?” and “Why do people look at me funny when I try to put chili powder on a doughnut because it is too sweet?”
Curiosity has always been a driving force for me. My grandmother of blessed memory had told me that I should always maximize my knowledge, especially knowledge of language and culture, because when you are Jewish, you can be kicked out of a country and expected to move on at any time.
I did not expect to emigrate to India (although an Indian surgeon had once invited me to do just that), but I jumped in with an inquisitiveness which they loved.
The very first thing I saw when I passed the threshold of their home was the wall poster of Lakshmi.
It looked almost exactly like this:
This I loved. Here was a woman, staring straight ahead at the painter, unafraid, and happy and smiling. Not too thin, well made up, sitting in a lotus flower (which I knew already to be the emblem of perfection) surrounded with plates full of money and lotus perfection-flowers.
And two extra arms. Has there ever been a woman who has not wished, at least once, that she had two extra arms?
I suspected what she represented, but so thorough, so deep, was my Judaeo-Christian endoctrination that I did not dare guess.
She was the goddess of wealth and plenty. It was a common woman’s name in India, for my hostess told me that she had a favorite first cousin who had that name.
I thought of this years later, when I first heard Lakshmi Singh, a newswoman on National Public Radio, identify herself.
I think now of a Diwali festival I had attended with the Indian community in Wichita, Kansas. My Indian family figured out pretty fast that not only I was not afraid of being the token Caucasian at any known ceremony, but that I so loved to dance that I could be counted upon to participate in any known dance, whether or not I had any idea of what I was doing.
I can do some of the more informal Indian regional country dances, but I still laugh when I remember how badly I massacred the Peacock dance. I mean, the beautiful girls who did it correctly and tried to show me must have attended classes for years.
Lakshmi is associated with Diwali.
Diwali really celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, and good over Evil. (By the way, “Malakshmi” is just another name for Lakshmi).
I am hoping this goddess-woman has a nice, solid sense of her own identity, for she seems to have more alternative names listed in the dictionary of Thai mythology than pretty much anybody else.
The name that seems to be the most frequent in Thailand is phra naret – the goddess of harvest, fertility, plenty, and all sorts of wealth.
Loi Krathong festival is “charming,” just like the author says.
I find myself wanting to impersonate this goddess, and celebrate her festivals. I like the idea of sending out little paper boats with candles and coins for Loi Krathong. I can easily imagine the delight of the children who pick up the boats with coins.
I am fortunate in that many people have shared many of their traditions with me. Also, my classical education, which might have seemed onerous at the time, is a source of richness.
I was in the fourth grade in gifted children’s school when I read, along with everyone else at that level, Bulfinch’s Mythology.
It had first been published back in 1855. Still, when I read it, Thomas Bulfinch, the well-educated but not excessively wealthy merchant type, was being celebrated as a “local boy;” his father was generally celebrated as the first American to practice architecture as a profession, and was responsible for the “Federal Style” of the Boston State House, numerous U.S. government buildings in Washington, and the like.
I remember being shocked when I first read it at age 9, so I will say now what I have thought since then, and what was discussed openly in class, even though I expect nobody to agree.
I have a lot of experience as a blasphemer.
We were told even then that some of our families might not go for this.
My class agreed with the teacher, that in moving from polytheism to monotheism, something seemed lost.
In the Judaeo-Christian world, we are in denial of the wish for abundance. “Filthy lucre” is the worst thing money can be called, and to seek it is a vice.
Here is a goddess, the Thai/Indian Lakshmi/phra naret who celebrates money and abundance openly. Nobody is talking about graft or corruption or stealing. Nobody is talking about compromising ideals in the name of money, or religious people taking vows of poverty.
I learned from my friends in Wichita that there were little shrines to phra naret/Lakshmi in places of business, to pray for financial success. This is a wholesome and laudable thing. Nobody is praying for your competition to be crushed like a bowl of only partially solidified jello.
And the Latter Day Saints folks have their way with it, too.
But I go back to the bible passage itself:
Abraham had a lovely hobby which was welcoming travelers to his tent and giving them all kinds of hospitality. This is not a struggling guy, but someone of means, who likes sharing things with others. There is no indication that he has any guilt for whatever means he has. He was on the edge of sacrificing his son for the Lord at one point. He is a true believer who wants to take good care of a passer-by whom he has no reason to guess might be divine.
Abraham, clearly not poor by the standards of the day, is a really good guy.
He is the great father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, known together as the “Abrahamic” religions.
Those who have the raw guts to study the Bible know that there are many manuscripts, lots of rewrites centuries after the “facts” that may have happened and the legends that probably never really did.
The reading of Bulfinch’s mythology was indeed a fitting opening to classical English literature. It was there that I first heard of the Greco-Roman goddesses. The Holy Scripture I slogged through as a child seemed to have contained enough prototypes of human relationships that most human behavior seemed referential to it.
It had a lot of women who were gifted with domestic virtues. It was tough going for a woman like me who had already pretty much made up her mind in earliest childhood that she wanted to be some kind of a scientist.
The Greeks had folks like Hera, goddess or marriage and birth and all that stuff, whom I found horrendously dull, even trivial.
My idol, early on was Athena –Goddess of intellect. Virgin. I mean, it is really good to like a goddess who believes in intellectual activity and does not have any particular need for men, especially when you are a nine year old virgin trying to plow through gifted children’s school.
My mother asked that I tell her everything I knew about Athena, and I did. And she got really mad when I told her that Athena had sprung fully grown from her father’s head. She told me she was not going to put up with any of my attempts to minimize her (clearly significant) role in my birth, and she didn’t, although my father said he really liked the idea of thinking of me as if I had shot straight out of his intellectual, Harvard-educated skull.
Lots of women can think of individual goddesses for lots of things.
I think of a woman restaurant owner I dearly loved in France, who loved to go hunting with the guys for wild boar. She really liked when I compared her to Artemis, goddess of the hunt.
(I went out with her once, and remember how relieved I was that we did not actually manage to come face-to-face with a wild boar, even though she had told me we could use his meat for pâté and sell his skin to make bristly hairbrushes.)
Aretemis was her goddess, and not mine.
The plethora of goddesses makes it a lot easier for a young woman who is searching to find a role model, a clear advantage of polytheism.
But with no goddess of financial success, how can a woman pray for success in business, let alone money, if so inclined?
This is the stuff of ancient prayers and amulets in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I mean, although I have been so alienated so many times I don’t hang around houses of worship anymore I have found a familiar sounding prayer online, for those who want financial success in the most honest and virtuous way.
They say it is Protestant, but I somehow can’t imagine a “Bashful Bachelor Farmer” from Minnesota on A Prairie-Home-Companion human saying this one.
My favorite source for general information on the “goddess” remains the very academic writing of Merlin (yes, this is a female name) Stone, most notably, “When God was a Woman.”
There is no doubt in my mind that there were lots of groups who worshipped women prior to the “masculinization” of the tradition through conquering or whatever other social forces, including ever censorship.
Stone was a major force in setting up “Goddess” celebrations, and there are certainly some women who are trying to reclaim our ancient “powers.” Still, an awful lot of organized religions (including Judaism, the one of my primordial heritage) are just too darn paternalistic for me to ever get really comfortable.
As for the tradition of the goddess, it is too rich and too wonderful to tell all at once. So stay tuned.