The end was really the beginning. The poem on the last pages of the book was written just after Sri Chinmoy‘s passing in 2007. I was sitting in the place of meditation, known as Aspiration-Ground, where my Guru spent much of his time in New York. I had written down a few of my recollections in years past, but I knew at that moment I would not be satisfied until I had put them together as a complete story – the story of how I came to this particular spiritual path, or to any path at all, and how my life has continued since.
I had delighted in writing little anecdotes until that day, but a book seemed a bridge too far. There were surely other people with much more to say, and no doubt with more talent, but I felt compelled beyond anything I can really describe. It was massively daunting, but I knew I had to try. I spent a year praying on and off for inspiration or direction, but nothing came. I just stared as though at an empty canvas, with a brush in one hand.
By April 2009 I had still not begun, and decided to meditate on it more sincerely during a visit back to New York. Still nothing. I headed for the plane back to London feeling none the wiser, and in truth somewhat tetchy that my prayers had been ignored.
As I got to the gate, one of the stewards called me aside. It was a time when airport security seemed especially stringent, so I already felt I had been through the mill getting that far. Eventually he explained that another passenger wanted to switch seats with me. Apparently the man was blind, and wanted the aisle, so it would be easier for him to move around if necessary. Relieved it was such a simple request, I agreed to change to the middle seat – certainly not my first choice on a busy transatlantic flight, but I hoped to be sleeping most of the way.
In came the blind man, with a walking stick and dark glasses, aided by the steward. He sat down, took his glasses off, pulled out some manuscripts from his bag and began reading. I assure you they were not in braille.
He was somewhat well-built let us say, and took over a little more than just our shared arm rest, so I had to pinch myself into my already seemingly tiny space. I am not proud to admit that everything he did irritated me from then; I imagined all sorts of things about him that were completely biased and unfair, based on ignorant stereotypes and my own general dissatisfaction with the circumstances. I would wait for dinner, and then invoke sleep as soon as possible.
One of the perks of being vegetarian is that ‘special’ airline meals are served first. Along came the steward a short time later, with my pre-ordered choice.
“Oh, I forgot to order vegetarian,” said the man, half to me and half to himself.
“You’re vegetarian?” I blurted out with audible surprise that I could possibly have anything in common with this seemingly rude and unscrupulous man.
“Yes, I try to eat vegetarian whenever I can. Mainly for spiritual reasons, but also because it’s better for the planet of course.”
“Of course,” I replied, chastened and curious. I realised I could not begin eating until I knew this poor fellow could secure his preferred meal. I would not sacrifice my entire tray, especially since he had just downed an enormous sandwich from his bag, but I had already softened enough to consider halving it with him if he would accept.
And so we talked while waiting, and we talked over dinner once a spare vegetarian tray was discovered in the kitchen. In fact we talked most of the way back to London. This meeting was actually the answer to my prayers, and I shuddered at how I very nearly missed the opportunity, by virtue of my own… lack of virtue.
It turns out he had never claimed to be blind. Whether by Chinese whispers or inaccurate data entry – perhaps compounded by the dark glasses and stick – his incapacity from a recent operation had mysteriously mutated into blindness according to the airline staff. He was in obvious discomfort, needing to move around regularly, and expressed his gratitude several times for the change of seats. He still took over more than his share of the arm rest, but I suddenly stopped minding.
We had much to discuss – much more than would fill a fleeting transatlantic hop. He was following a path of meditation, somewhat different from my own, but with many similarities. He was also a literary agent, specialising in spirituality and memoir. We both confessed that while we may exchange pleasantries with our neighbours on flights, we wouldn’t normally strike up a conversation, as privacy and personal space are already at a premium. Even he admitted our meeting was obviously ‘meant to be’. Little did he know its significance for me. It took me a few hours to bring up the subject, due to my intimidation, but I eventually said I had been praying for direction on writing my own story.
Two things he told me stayed with me most powerfully:
- Start. Don’t wait until you’re ready, you’ll never be ready, just start. You will ultimately discard a lot of what you write to begin with, but unless you get it out, you won’t discover the real story.
- Write the book you would most like to read. Write about the things that matter most to you, and don’t worry about whether they matter to anyone else. What fires your inspiration will come across as real, meaningful and authentic, and that’s what will mean most – to you and to your potential readers.
He was right. I followed just those two maxims throughout the literary journey that began that day. It still took three years, but I know now it could not have happened any quicker.
We exchanged cards as we went our separate ways. I contacted him, but never heard back. I thought in some way we had become friends, but who was I kidding? He was a big successful literary agent with decades of experience, countless success stories, and no doubt countless people hounding him for advice and attention. I was a small-fry first-time author with no clue of how to move in publishing circles. He had played his essential role, and it was time for others to play theirs. I was extremely fortunate to have his ear for five or six minutes, let alone five or six hours.
Most of all my gratitude goes to Sri Chinmoy, without whom the story would not exist in the first place. I hope it is clear I am grateful to this literary agent, who taught me not just about how to start writing, but a good deal about not judging a book by its cover. I also want to thank The Writers’ Workshop for their editorial advice, especially Claire Gillman for her insightful and sensitive mentoring. Last but by no means least, I want to thank John Hunt for agreeing to publish the book. I received many rejections from other publishers, which is to be expected given the state of the economy, and especially the publishing market. One of many things Sri Chinmoy taught me is never to give up. In the end, I could not have hoped for a more perfect outcome, and would not wish it any other way. Auspicious Good Fortune is now published under Mantra Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing, specialising in Eastern-inspired spirituality.
It is still somewhat unreal to hold the printed book in my hand, with the cover I chose, the words I wrote, the experiences that have come to pass in this incredibly fortunate lifetime. So the journey continues, or maybe it has only just begun…