(NOTE: This is part two of an extensive interview with writer, educator, musician and entrepreneur Lila Devi, the founder of Spirit-in-Nature Flower Essences and author of Bradley Banana and the Jolly Good Pirate, the flagship book for a 20-book children’s series based on her flower essence products; and From Bagels to Curry, a poignant memoir about her father’s final months. In this section of the interview, Lila discusses the inner workings of From Bagels to Curry with Robert Yehling.)
Robert Yehling: In a major switch of direction, you have finished a memoir, From Bagels to Curry, that is currently being shopped. I was deeply touched by the subtleties of emotion and feeling, the little shifts that come with, in this case, a patriarch’s gradual journey out of life. Can you talk about the experiences with your Dad and some of the subtleties you write about?
Lila Devi: Ultimately, From Bagels to Curry is a story of celebration, gratitude, and divine love. My own experience in assisting my father through the last few months of his life is both personal and impersonal. Years ago, I asked an East Indian friend how she dealt with the loss of her own father. “You learn to bear it,” she answered.
My father’s passing, and the months leading up to it, struck an unexpectedly deep place within me. Despite my best efforts, I felt unprepared, blindsided, stunned. And yet in that raw place of grieving, the heart opens and the soul peers through, in ways that are unimaginably sublime. In the presence of my dying father, I was hurled into a heightened state of awareness of the grace that exists all around us, all the time—and of a great closeness to God. To experience divine bliss and earthly suffering in a single moment has to be lived to be believed.
How did I feel when facing my father’s imminent passing, or what Yogananda once called “the stunning mystery of death?” That nothing else matters in this world but one’s inner life. Because that’s all we take with us when we leave this world.
RY: Another thing that struck me is how well you captured the process of losing the second parent — an entirely different experience for all of us than losing the first parent. Do you think the fact your Dad survived your Mom made him approach his final months differently than, say, if he were the first to pass?
LD: No. I think my mother’s passing before Dad made him live differently, and become both a mother and father to his 5 children. Throughout his half-century-long marriage, he was always gracious enough not to outshine my mother.
Dad was a one-man band, a center-stage entertainer, a charismatic guy. He lit up the chemo treatment room, and he enlivened the Passover table. And although I was never present to witness it firsthand, I would bet his poker chips that no one has filled his chair at the guys’ sacred Friday night games. My father was his own best story.
RY: You wrote this narrative out of a series of journal entries and actual letters to friends and family members, using hindsight to clarify or elaborate on certain points. Then you converted it into page-turning narrative. Could you share some of the decisions you made while shaping this memoir?
LD: As mentioned in the book’s preface, the initial skeleton of the memoir was my private journal written over those months. Having a chronicled timeline really came in handy. As I worked and reworked the entries, they grew more poetic, less literal, and less locked in to reporting, “This happened, and then that happened.” You might call this “soft-focus” writing, where what seems like reality becomes dreamlike, dotted with poignant and humorous metaphors that lift us to a higher and truer reality, and ultimately to our soul nature.
When you ask about the decision-making process, I’m looking over my shoulder to see who you’re really talking to! It was more a case of, “Oh, that’s a good story. Why not throw that in?” Sculpting this memoir was about tuning in to inner guidance, as best I could. There were some accounts that needed to be added to develop the storyline, and others that didn’t. That slight nervousness you feel in the heart is the intuition saying, no.
RY: What do you feel is the most important part of writing?
LD: To get yourself out of the way. That doesn’t mean automatic writing. It’s a process of trusting “what’s trying to happen.” At Ananda, we have a wonderful saying about watching our “joy level.” Indian scripture says that joy is the presence of God. I find that the real work of writing it is to get out of the way and into a flow of divine joy.
RY: A highlight of From Bagels to Curry concerns the well-chosen flashback scenes – to your childhood and his early years. You used them sparingly, for maximum impact with the narrative. What did you feel was important to share and convey with readers as you made your selections of these reminiscences?
LD: The singular, most important message of From Bagels to Curry, is love. Understatement is also very powerful. Humor is vital, especially with a story this somber. After all, what’s the plot? Someone dies. My friend and spiritual guide, Swami Kriyananda, once said to me, “Your sense of humor is your saving grace.” Those 5 and ½ months were all about tapping into the joy of the soul—both my own and my father’s.
Who wants to read a book that begins, “And they all lived happily ever after?” The lifelong conflict and underlying tension between me and my father make a far more compelling story!
I remember one morning meeting Dad in the kitchen a few months before his passing. He said to me with an irritated expression on his face, “Why are you laughing all the time? What’s so funny? Stop that.” I realized that my nervous laughter was my way of trying to show him how well I was doing; how light-hearted I felt; how on-top-of-my-job-description-as-his-caretaker-until-he-got-to-Heaven I was. But none of that was true. Truth be told, my nerves were shot and, most of the time, I was clueless about how to best help him. Yet even then, an underlying bliss never deserted me.
RY: You are the oldest child and only daughter in a traditional Jewish family; a daughter who became an entrepreneur and author and seeks her own spiritual path; yet, in the end, you assume a traditional role of being your parent’s primary caretaker. This adds to the narrative tension of the book — but also the tension that existed between you and your father. How did you work present this in the book in a way that was bluntly honest, but also so compassionate and empathetic towards both yourself and your father?
LD: To be blunt, writing this book was humbling, cathartic, heart-wrenching, and liberating—all at the same time.
A great saint once said that our spirituality is tested in the cold light of day. I lived for several months in that cold light on a daily basis—from the day my father was admitted to the hospital emergency room until the days of sitting shiva once he passed. If you want to hasten your spiritual progress, spend time with someone who is preparing for what my father once called “that big Scrabble game in the sky.”
That same saint had a slogan: “more and better.” In those sacred months, I often found myself introspecting—which is not the same as judgment, false humility, or self-deprecation—about how to go deeper in my care of Dad; how to deal more graciously with my birth relatives; and how to see the unity between the familial personalities that were sometimes nearly impossible to manage.
RY: As a founding member of the Ananda spiritual community, you’ve been following a path of deep yoga and meditation, selfless service and honoring the divine within others for 35 years. The example of Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), the author of 140 books, has also put you on a path of intense activity, creativity and expression. Were these seeds of activity and creativity in you as a child and younger woman? How has the community bolstered and supported you in your diverse growth?
LD: It’s thrilling to be a part of the spiritual communities movement. With 40-some years to Ananda’s history, we’ve established ourselves as successful in what we’re doing.
To my mind, and many others, this is the only way of life that makes sense. Despite Dad’s feeling that I’d thrown my life away by moving to Ananda—“you have to live in the real world,” he would say—I have never doubted for a second that I’m living the life for which I incarnated.
I moved to Ananda Village in 1976, six months after a forest fire that destroyed 22 homes. The community emerged stronger than ever as a global model for what Yogananda called “plain living and high thinking.” There, I found the way of life I’d been seeking.
Ananda is a force of Nature that draws well-educated, highly motivated, developmentally functional and independent people who want to live a God-reminding life with other like-minded souls who are committed to a life of service and meditative practices. Mr. Walters himself is a brilliant writer, composer, and photographer, not to mention the founder of what has become perhaps the most globally successful network of spiritual communities in the world today.
On a level of personal growth, I know I’ve benefited immensely from living at Ananda. For most of my life, I’ve been a writer of poems, songs, chants, and plays, and also a vocalist and guitarist; all these activities and more have been enhanced by living in this spiritual community.
RY: You embody a glorious mix of playfulness, childlike curiosity and imagination, intensity, solid business principles and the keen ability to find the essential truth of what you’re seeking – no matter what it takes. Could you talk about how you work with these qualities in your writing and life?
LD: When I teach the flower essences, which are really all about higher consciousness, I use the image of a pie to illustrate human nature: you always cut a slice of apple pie from an apple pie, not a piece of blueberry pie from an apple pie—meaning that people are consistent and human nature is both understandable and predictable.
Memoir writing doesn’t allow the author the option to remain outside the story, where it’s safe and dry and inconspicuous. You have to jump in. You have to be yourself, and humbly hope for the best. This book was originally a biography of my father—about his life and his death. And then, just for fun, I started adding myself and our relationship into the mix, like tossing new ingredients into a tried-and-true favorite recipe. And it seemed to work.
Doing anything well takes energy. There’s an expression that “energy and joy go hand in hand.” I think the subtle dance between these two qualities is what writing—good, true writing—is all about. I remember years ago, talking with Swami Kriyananda about a particularly difficult personal test I was facing at the time. He interrupted me in the middle of my whining sentence, and said “Don’t try. Just do it.” That statement has become a guiding principle of my life.
RY: How did the personalities and interests of your parents weave together within you, and how have you showcased the best of their influences in your work?
LD: You might say I inherited certain qualities from my parents. Or, according to yogic principles, we draw like-minded souls to ourselves according to our pre-existing tendencies, rather than the other way around.
Dad was a born people-person. He saw everyone as a potential friend—or an audience, whether they wanted to be or not. By the time we exited a restaurant, he was always on a first-name basis with the waiter. Dad was interested in everyone. My four brothers—who are so much like him that it’s almost eerie—like to say, “Ya had ta see it.”
My mother had a keen, questioning mind that looked deeply into the psyche of others. When I was in high school, she went back to college to study psychology and English, which became my majors as well. I used to type her papers on my little Smith-Corona. Operating an old typewriter was like playing a musical instrument with its own keyboard, though with keys of uneven weights—clunky keys whose lower case vowels would thicken with pools of ink blotches.
Writing, for me, seems to be a transcendent way of blending both psychology, with its insights into the workings of the mind and emotions, and English, with its lyrical flow and romantic poetry. In other words, a nice blending of what my parents brought to me.
RY: What’s next on your busy schedule as a writer?
LD: Finishing the 20 children’s picture book series is first on the agenda. There’s more to write about Spirit-in-Nature Essences, which continue to amaze me: intermediate and advanced flower essence books, including workbooks, based on the newest batches of cases and research; shorter gift books for coffee table reading, covering some of the more intriguing elements of flower essences; and at least one more book about the essences for pets. From Bagels to Curry has been such a great joy, who knows—maybe more in that niche? After that, we’ll just have to see.