by Bruce Yasgur
There are a lot of yoga studios in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. Whenever I pass by one, I think about Bobbi Tighe, my former yoga instructor who said that one of those studios was hers. Something about her reminded me of a little old man I’d met years ago. I doubt that he’d ever been near Chestnut Hill, and I don’t know if he was a yogi, but, despite their radically different appearances, he and Bobbi shared a similar charismatic presence, which is hard to describe in a few words.
In any case, both taught me about learning to accept and to let go — he when I was in my prime, single and carefree, but dealing with a temporary affliction; she more recently, when I was a lot older and dealing with concerns about my own health and that of my wife and son.
I met Bobbi when my wife, Janice, and I joined her yoga class for cancer patients and their family members. Janice, now a survivor of about seven years, was the patient. What follows is a recounting of the events that led up to my chance meeting with that little old man and how a couple of minutes with him made a big impact on me half a lifetime ago and halfway around the globe.
Back in the early ‘80s, I spent two years living abroad, the first as a Fulbright Exchange Teaching Fellow in England and the second traveling the world with backpack, guitar and a few travelers’ checks in my shoes. Those years were rich with tales, one of which appeared in this paper last fall, and the rest of which have yet to be recorded. This meeting took place in Kashmir, in the rugged Northwest of India. I’d been out for a long hike in the hills overlooking Dal Lake and high enough above the metropolis of Srinagar to escape its din and humid, exhaust-laden air.
Having visited a friendly bush or two during my outing to relieve myself, I descended down the hills toward the city center and came upon its main transportation hub, a relic of the British Raj. Even though the sweat was now pouring off of me, I was ready to avail myself of the indoor plumbing I figured I’d find there. I entered through the rambling old edifice’s gigantic carved wooden portals and set about wading amid the throng of commuters, shoppers, hucksters, vagrants and ever-present beggars, scanning the horizon for the appropriate facility.
Deep within the dimly-lit great hall, I noticed a long line of women queuing outside the Ladies’ WC. With a renewed sense of urgency and a growing pessimism that I’d make it in time, I soon spotted the Gentlemen’s and quickened my pace. Encountering no queue outside, I optimistically pushed the door open. Inside, as I’d initially feared, 20 or so fellow travelers were waiting relatively patiently to relieve themselves at the room’s solitary “convenience.”
In my challenged state, I couldn’t help but wonder why the designers of this public palace had provided for only one toilet and failed to install a trough-style urinal. If they had done that, most users would have found instant relief. There’d be no need for the queue, or at least, not such a long one. What had they been thinking, or maybe, smoking? Or was it about that fabled Victorian modesty, or perhaps, the equally infamous British stiff-upper-lip?
To make matters worse, it was even hotter and stickier indoors than out, and, as if my situation weren’t dire enough already, as soon as I entered the room I was ambushed by the overwhelming stench of the foulest waste that God-knows-how-many bodies could offer up, or in any direction. It was beyond anything I encountered before or since in my travels through a hefty part of the third-world, including Mexico, rural Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Kenya, South and Southeast Asia and the Philippines. I’d long since concluded that sanitation was, for much of humanity, a concept at best.
This, however, was the worst, and there was no getting used to it. Desperate to refocus my outraged senses, I noticed a small, screened opening abuzz with legions of flies. Having no doubt gorged themselves on the all-day buffet that so many had generously provided, even they seemed to be competing for fresher air and the fantasy of freedom on the other side of the wall — the great outdoors. After a painful yet ultimately successful effort to suppress my mounting nausea, I decided to further distract myself from the dual assault on my olfactory nerves and bladder by perfecting my newest pastime of snatching flies midflight out of the miasma. I was getting pretty good at it, too.
I was catching five, six or more at a swipe and propelling them against the tile wall, hoping to smash their little brains out. In the past, I’d crushed flies in my fist or between my hands, but now, knowing what would smoosh out of them, no way. As the queue ahead of me gradually shrank, the man right in front of me, whom I’d perceived until then only as the crown of a whitish turban almost a foot below my field of vision, turned and faced me in a calm but determined manner. Looking up at me with a mustache-frosted smile, and employing only hand and body motions, he communicated a simple but profound wisdom. Drawing his fingers together, he nodded and placed his left hand on his chest. With his right forefinger, he pointed at me, at himself, then at the buzzing multitude. Next, palms together, he raised his hands and eyes toward the ceiling and, it seemed, beyond. Lowering his gaze, his palms still together, he honored us both with a slight bow in my direction. I couldn’t help but smile myself as I returned the gesture. I think I got it.
Although we exchanged no words, I can’t forget his message, and I can only attempt to pass it on in this brief memoir. I think he was telling me that we’re all created by the same power, and we’re all part of one universal reality: my nameless new friend, our restroom companions, myself and the flies. The lesson keeps coming back whenever I stop and let the world in, or when I’m taking a walk, meditating or just letting my mind wander. Listen, I still catch flies occasionally; it’s just that now I usually let them go. But mosquitoes? That’s another story.
Next time I’m in the neighborhood, maybe I’ll stop by Bobbi’s place and tell a tale or two. I’ll bet she can spin some colorful yarns of her own.
Bruce J. Yasgur, JD, EdD, of Havertown, grew up first in West Oak Lane and later in East Oak Lane. He taught at several high schools, including Central, and at three colleges, including Temple University. His father’s first cousin was Max Yasgur, who gained worldwide publicity when he allowed his huge property in upstate New York to be used as the site of the legendary Woodstock rock music festival in 1969, attended by about 500,000 crazies, some of whom were almost swallowed up by the mud.