Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's in a Name

There has been much talk about names, particularly the changing of names, among my friends this past week. I have personally changed names just enough times that people from my past look at my name and say, "Who"? I don't look enough like I did when I was a child for people to make the connection. I consider this a blessing.

Recently one of my blog postings about my profession was picked up by another library blog. I was a bit amused to see myself referred to as "Ms. Nischala", as I use the name "Brigid Nischala" on this blog. Similarly, when I co-wrote an article for Weird NJ with editor Mark Sceurman, he billed me as "Brigid Nischala Burke."

Only my Hindu friends ever call me "Nischala", as it is the Sanskrit name given to me by Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. It's not part of my legal name, but I use it after all the trouble she took to give it to me. Like most things in my life, there is a story attached to the name. Since I've had a number of friends ask me about the story, I'll relay it for you here.

I met Mata Amritanandamayi (or Amma, as she is often called) in New York City in 2002. My friend and former colleague Sulekha had been pressuring me to see Amma when she arrived on her summer tour. As a religion postgrad who spent a lot of time studying new religious movements, I'm pretty skeptical of claims to holiness or guru status. However, some of my own personal experiences made me curious enough about Amma to at least see what she was about. She had the marks of a genuine guru, particularly humility and charity. She usually brushes off any claims to greatness, and in spite of what news reports say, she does not own a single thing except the clothes on her back. By all appearances at least, she had potential.

So, with this and other things in mind, I went to meet her, and was more than impressed. I'm not going to delve into my experiences with her here, but it should suffice to say that I have no doubts about her credibility. I received a mantra from her that November in Michigan, and during her tour the following July, I asked her for a name.

The naming process is something that Westerners usually go through, as most Indian devotees already go through their own traditional naming process. The name is supposed to reflect the greatest potential divine quality seen in the person by the guru. It doesn't mean the person always acts according to the quality of the name, but they will have the most success if they develop that quality.

Amma never seems to handle the naming process the same way with each person. For some devotees, she just looks at them and a name immediately comes to her lips; for others, a book is consulted. After asking her for a name, I went to talk to the person in charge of the "naming" line--if you've ever been to one of these programs, you know it can be utter chaos with lines everywhere. Whether or not there is a naming line depends on whether or not Amma intends to give names that day. As it turned out, I was one of 5 people allowed to be on the naming line.

I waited almost 3 hours before Amma started giving names. There was one woman in front of me. Two brahmacharis behind Amma opened a book of Sanskrit names to a particular page, and held the book out to her. Amma was still receiving those who came for her darshan. She glanced over her shoulder, looked at the woman, and pointed to a name in the book. The brahmacharis then wrote the name on a slip of paper. A few minutes later, Amma took the slip of paper and held it to her ajna chakra ("third eye"), and handed it back without looking at the woman. One of the brahmacharis then gave the woman the slip of paper, told her what the name was, and what it meant. Then it was my turn.

Once again, the brahmacharis opened the book, and held it to Amma. She glanced at the book, and then at me. "No, no, no!" she exclaimed, pushing the book away. She then turned to the brahmacharis and started talking very fast in Malayalam, counting something off on her fingers, and pointing at me. She then smiled at me, and went back to giving her darshan. The two men were now frantically turning the pages of the book, and wrote down at least 5 different names on slips of paper. They held the slips out to Amma, who waited a good 20 minutes before she would look at them. In between "darshans", she would look at me, smile, and stroke my face.

Finally she glanced at the papers, and said, more softly this time, "No, no"--and then began to explain something to them again. Towards the end of her explanation, she started to say "Nischala, Nischala, Nischala", and pointing at me very directly. She saw me looking at her, smiled broadly, put her hands on my face, and said, "Nischala!" So, the brahmacharis wrote down the name. One of them said, "Nischala--it means--not moving."

So, I left with this name, not before I spoke to Upasana, the devotee who was running the naming line. "What was THAT about?" she asked me. She then explained that Amma was not satisfied with the names presented to her--the name had to have certain qualities, and she came up with Nischala on her own.

After talking to other Hindu friends much better versed in Sanskrit names than myself, I found out that Nischala means "stillness" (literally not moving--the opposite of chanchala, which is restlessness). It's one of the 1,000 names of the goddess Kali. It appears to be a good fit for a name, as I function best when I remain still and not get caught up in the pressures of life. That doesn't mean that I avoid life, but rather than getting dizzy on the wheel of ups and downs, I prefer to watch movement from the center. When I don't do this, I have trouble.

I've been restless all day today, so perhaps I should take a page from my own book here...

Monday, October 20, 2008

John Foxx and Louis Gordon at Cargo, 10/16/08 (Yes, I really made it...)

Well, I’m finally back from London after a trip that was too short. As I mentioned in my earlier posting, I really wanted to go to the John Foxx/Louis Gordon show in London. I finally just took the plunge and went, in spite of having to re-arrange my life for that week (not an easy feat this semester). It was well worth it.
Cargo is a very small venue, just the size I like for a show, actually. They started letting people in for the show around 8:00, and there was a VJ set for the first hour that was pretty intense, though the video loop starting to get tiring after about the 10th time. John and Louis finally came on a little after 9:00, and they were absolutely spectacular. The setlist follows:
Walk This Way
A Million Cars
The Man Who Dies Every Day
No-one Driving
Burning Car
Shadow Man

The Garden
Broken Furniture
Young Savage
My Sex
Shifting City

I had grabbed quite a few pictures at this show, which I’ve posted to Flickr. John is a really amazing performer. While the whole show was brilliant, there were a few things that stood out—“Underpass”, “The Garden”, “Burning Car”. I was thrilled that he did 2 Ultravox tunes, “Young Savage” and “My Sex”; the former had a few mistakes, but it didn’t really take away from the song. The only annoying part of the show was one video loop of this woman wearing what looked like a feather boa spreading her arms behind her—my friend Sherri had commented on that as well. It was too repetitive. The rest of the video was fine without that particular film loop.

After the show I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with John. Sherri said it was for about 20 minutes. I didn’t notice how much time had elapsed, as I think I was mostly delirious from little food and sleep at that point. I certainly looked tired in the pictures! But I did learn from John that he is working on an album with Vincent Gallo (!?) in New York, and should be doing a few gigs in New York, Boston, and Detroit, though he wasn’t sure when. I am definitely looking forward to that!
Overall, I met a lot of really cool people, finally hooked up with Ms. Sherri after chatting with her online forever, and had a great time at the show. 4 days in London went way too fast, and I can’t believe I went to work today. But not to worry, back to London again in about 9 weeks...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

New York City, Open Spaces, and EATB at RCMH

I'm home today, on a day that can be accurately described as "blustery". I expect to see Piglet fly by at any moment.

I've been thinking about going for a walk all day, but I haven't wanted to drive anywhere. It's silly, really--I live in the country. All I have to do is walk outside to experience the Fall weather. Lots of New Yorkers drive to where I live to experience Autumn In The Country. Which can make things less enjoyable for those of us who live here, but tourism keeps taxes down, so we put up with it.

This morning I woke up in New York City. I went to see Echo & the Bunnymen at Radio City Music Hall last night. Given previous concert experiences, I decided it was better if I did not try to run frantically to the last train to New Jersey at 12:30, and got a hotel room just off Times Square instead. It turned out to be a blessing.

First, let me tell you about the show. It was absolutely magnificent. The stage set was beautiful, they had images from the Bunnymen's early years projected on two screens to the left and right of stage, and the band sounded amazing. Unfortunately, I was ill through most of the show. I was out drinking at the pre-show meetup with some other Bunnymen fans, and then my friend Chris and I wandered off to another bar before going to the show. The place we ended up going to was a bit more upscale, and they mostly served wine and hard liquor. I drink red wine all the time, but certain varieties really screw up my head. Unfortunately, I ended up drinking one of those varieties of wine, and felt horribly sick through the show. I ended up leaving during the Ocean Rain set--I thought I was going to pass out. I was very glad to not be getting on a train--and then driving home for 40 minutes.

The show had 2 parts--the first part of the show was a mixture of their more well-known tunes, the second half of the show was the entire Ocean Rain album, complete with live orchestra. I read some complaints about the sound on the forum, but it sounded incredible to me--Ian McCulloch's voice was flawless, and Will Seargent was playing in top form. The drums were amazing as well. Here is the setlist for the first half:

Lips Like Sugar
Bring on the Dancing Horses
I Think I Need It Too
The Disease
All That Jazz
Back of Love
All My Colours
People are Strange
Nothing Lasts Forever/Walk On the Wild Side/In The Midnight Hour
The Cutter

So, I woke up in a hotel on 51st Street this morning. As I was leaving for the subway, I was struck by how quiet New York is at 7:00 in the morning, and how the streets are relatively empty. Times Square is a veritable zoo during the day, and more so at night--now there were only a few people here and there. The wind was blowing, and it occurred to me that New Yorkers have a wonderful Autumn all their own. The subway station was nearly empty, save 2 or 3 other people, and even Penn Station, which is almost always busy, was very quiet in its busy-ness.

New York is not for the claustrophobic. I've been to many big cities, and there is nothing anywhere like the densely populated spaces of New York. I am reminded of a J.G. Ballard short story that I read once--I think it was called "The Concentration City". The main character goes to the far reaches of the vast city to see if there is free space to test a flying machine. Even reading the story makes me claustrophobic--the idea that all space is occupied in all directions and has to be paid for. I love New York City, but I couldn't live there on account of that lack of space. I am physically exhausted by the time I come home. However, my experience walking around in an emptier city this morning made me realize that there IS space in New York City, if you know when to look for it. It's ironic in a way (see my earlier post on "quiet spaces")--I can find quiet space in New York City, but not in the country.

Riding home on the train this morning, I was looking at the portion of the Meadowlands that the train passes through en route to Newark Broad Street. I know way more about the Meadowlands than I want to, as my current funded digital project revolves around digitizing materials related to the history of the area and the commissions designed to keep it as a protected estuary. Looking at the herons sitting on top of wood and other debris in the water, I couldn't help but notice that nature in an urban area always manages to look polluted. The masses of green algae would not look out of place on a pond near my house, but it looks like a polluted mess in the industrial wastelands of East Jersey. I'm continually amazed at how different East and West (and South) Jersey are from each other.

Only 2 more weeks til I go to London. And I will NOT be drinking red wine before the John Foxx show.