Completing The Story: Letters From Espanola

The values of a society, the power structures, the oppression, even, exist in the subtext of the stories that we tell ea...


If memory serves me well, I began to read around the age of 3. When I walked into kindergarten at age 5, and the teacher began to teach us the ABC's, I complained: I told her I already knew the ABC's, that I already knew how to read.

I couldn’t understand how the children around me did not know what an “A” was. Wasn’t there something else I could do? 

The teacher had no idea what to do with me. 

It was, unfortunately, the beginning of a theme in my life. The incredulous sense of, “Really? They don’t know that?” 

My sister once teased me. “Why are you such an intellectual snob?” she asked.

I teased her back, “Because I can be.”

Actually, what learning to read at age 3 meant was that my brain has a special affinity for language - for words, images and stories. How they shape people and how, in turn, they affect life. 

There are other skills that I am woefully deficient in, of course. Having a sense of direction is one of them.

While in college, I majored in Asian Studies but also took a lot of classes in English Literature. Part of our college discipline was to learn about literary theory – the study of how stories encode hidden meanings within them. The values of a society, the power structures, the oppression, even, exist in the subtext of the stories that we tell each other. 

For instance, “Eve made Adam eat the apple. God got mad about it. And that is why women are inferior to men.” Really – it’s a ridiculous statement on every single level. But it is such a deeply rooted story that the people who have made this story a part of themselves have used it to justify gender inequality for thousands of years. 

Studying literary theory gave me the tools to not get caught in the story, itself, but to see all the layers of hidden meaning underneath. It turned my understanding of stories inside out and upside down. 

It wasn’t that stories tell you “how life is.” No – quite the opposite. The human brain acts and projects from the stories most deeply ingrained within it.

This study of literary theory opened a doorway in my awareness I realized something very simple: if you want to create change in the world – in society, in families – start by changing the stories. The stories that get told. The stories that get heard. The stories that become a part of someone.

If the stories change, the mind can create something new.

After graduating from college, my pursuit of “the story” continued. I worked for a while as a journalist. During that time, I tried my hand at investigative reporting. 

One story that I wrote exposed corruption in the courts of Harris County, Texas, and none of the judges discussed in the story got re-elected. However, the story took six months of research and I got paid $400 for it. 

Not exactly a way to earn a living. 

In my mid 20s, for a very brief period of time, I tried to begin a monthly newspaper with my then partner. The theme of the newspaper was “solution-oriented news.” The intention was to never write about anything from a negative perspective, and also not to simply feature fluffy, happy stories. “Solution-oriented news” meant tackling real issues from the perspective of how to solve real problems.

The name of the monthly newspaper was ‘Spiral Magazine‘. Before I began it, I did some research about running a monthly paper. One person told me that I needed tens of thousands of dollars of capital to be successful. 

He was right. The newspaper lasted just a few months. It bit the dust when I realized how much advertising influences editorial policy. While trying to sell an ad to a wellness center, the manager basically said, “We will purchase an ad if you write something positive about us.”

That was when I realized the basic problem with the free press.

It isn’t actually free.

When ‘Spiral Magazine’ folded, I had no real clue about what to do with my life. Around that time, I came to Espanola, New Mexico and took a Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training course with Kundalini Yoga Master, ‘Yogi Bhajan’ Harbhajan Singh ji.

You have to understand, back then, I was living a very different kind of life. I wore black all the time. I did not own a bra or a watch. I was a rebel with too many causes. Free spirited, intellectual, seeker - studying lots of different meditation styles. 

The Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training program lasted for a month. That time in my life is a story in itself. But the seeds planted during that training program sprouted into profound changes in the years that followed. 

There was one particular moment I remember, however. While doing Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training in Espanola, we aspiring yoga teachers had a chance to tour the ashram’s gurdwara and hear a little bit about the Sikh Gurus. We were taught how to cover our heads, where to sit to listen to the kirtan, and to never come empty-handed before Guru Granth Sahib. 

Now – I did not have much at that point in my life. My mother had helped pay for my trip to Espanola to begin with. But there was one quiet afternoon when I came to the gurdwara by myself. I had copies of the two issues of ‘Spiral Magazine’ that we actually published. 

I put those newspapers in front of the Guru Granth Sahib and bowed. There was a prayer there – but it didn’t really have any words. ‘Spiral Magazine’ had been the culmination of all my study and intellectual activism up to that point in my life. I really wanted to make that dream a reality - to create the new story that would create a different world. But because of the practical business realities, it hadn’t worked out.

So I put the two copies of these newspapers in front of the Guru because it was honestly all I had to give. 

And I walked away.

That was almost 20 years ago.

This month, amazingly, the pursuit of the story blossomed once again in a way that has helped me feel a sense of satisfaction rather than a sense of defeat. 

At the beginning of March, in celebration of International Women’s Day, SikhNet released a free online animation titled “Kaur”. 

“Kaur” weaves two stories together. The story of a young Sikh girl, Saibhang Kaur, who has an interest in science. She feels bullied at school and misunderstood at home. And the story of Mai Bhago with her courage in leading 40 men into battle to protect Guru Gobind Singh against the Mughal forces. 

In the animation, Saibhang Kaur’s grandmother tells her the story of Mai Bhago. And because of this story, Saibhang Kaur finds the courage to pursue her dreams.

We hoped that the story would inspire young girls and boys. We hoped that Sikh parents would enjoy it. But we also created the story in a way that it might potentially appeal to any girl, to any boy, to any family. 

Because the story of Mai Bhago is one of those stories. If it gets in you, it changes the way you see the world. It changes the way you think, and what the mind believes is possible.

The response to “Kaur” has been all that we hoped, and more. Children love it. They are getting imprinted early on with a powerful story that teaches gender equality and self-empowerment. Sikh parents have thanked us for it – they are watching the movie with their children and having dialogues with them about the issues. And people who are not Sikh enjoy it, too. 

Here are a few of the comments we have gotten:

“Thanks a lot for making this kind of movie for us. I regard and love my religion a lot. It was really so inspiring.”

“Great Job! We watched the film together as a family this evening. Much enjoyed by all. Nice story, well put together, and a fun animation style. Left us wishing for more stories like this. Thank you for your time and efforts to share with us.”

“Superb. You did an excellent job. I thoroughly enjoyed this. I am a Christian, but I have shared it in my FB. God bless.”

The response to “Kaur” reminded me that my life has been a continual exploration of how the new story can create a new reality. It sealed in me the understanding that the Ten Sikh Masters deeply understood this phenomenon. 

Gurbani brought a new song to the earth hundreds of years ago that profoundly challenged the status quo. 

The more people sang those songs, the more society began to change.

Stories like Mai Bhago show how deep that transformation went. From a culture that considered women inferior to even animals, a woman like her could arise: self-illumined, meditative, martially trained, and a leader. Her actions fulfilled the promise that gurbani offers. Those songs gave birth to Mai Bhago – to her consciousness, her valor and courage. 

And the actions of her life wrote a new story that has resonated through the centuries.

We forget sometimes that the Sikh tradition never started off as something separate. Rather, the Gurus gave a path that could elevate the entire human race to Universal Consciousness. Gurbani does not belong to us Sikhs. We protect it as Sikhs. But the songs and their wisdom belong to the world. 

Many stories in Sikh history show how people realized their full potential as human beings. They are not just “Sikh” stories. They are stories of hope for all humanity. The more we can find ways to share these songs and stories with others in a way that is relevant to them, the more power we have to create a new reality. 

That, ultimately, is what I believe the Gurus are about.

You have to become the living story of the change you want to see in the world.

Please CLICK here to watch the animated film, "Kaur". 

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