Six months ago, all I knew of Garuda was that it was the name of one of Peet's blends
of coffee beans from Indonesia. Then one day I was in the Xela Imports shop on 24th
street, looking for a small statue of Tara to place on the altar I was setting up next to my
bed at the firehouse where I work, and I told the owner of the shop that I considered
Tara to be the patron saint of paramedics. "Oh-- what about Garuda?" she asked. She
explained that he helped to rescue people, and the one small cast statue she had of
him showed a fierce eagle's head and talons on a human body, with a person riding on
his back amidst the fanned feathers of his wings and tail. I considered whether or not I
wanted to work with Garuda as I went out to feed my parking meter, but finding an ex-
pensive ticket on my windshield, decided I couldn't justify purchasing the statue that
day. But I did start doing research into who Garuda is.
A mythological creature arising from the Hindu tradition, Garuda has also found a place
in Buddhism, appearing throughout Asia from the Himalayan heights of Tibet down to the
islands of Indonesia. Half eagle and half man, he is the Vahana of Vishnu, one of trinity of
major dieties in Hinduism. In that tradition, some dieties have Vahanas, or mounts, whom
they ride as a person would ride a horse. Ganesha's Vahana is a mouse, and Vishnu's is
Garuda. The trinity consists of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the
destroyer. So, even though the figure on Garuda's back in the statue turned out to be the
god Vishnu rather than a rescued victim, their shared task is that of sustaining and pre-
serving the creation, redeeming us and rescuing us from our self-destruction, so that we
can go on in this world. I realized that while the gentle compassion of Tara may indeed
make her the most appropriate guide for paramedics, who seek to restore balance within
people, the fierce protection of life embodied by Garuda seemed to correspond to the task
undertaken by firefighters-- that of rescuing people from external threats to their lives and
well-being. The eagle heads atop our helmets that hold our shields in place, the outstretched wings on our badges and in the fire department seal, all took on deeper meaning.
As soon as I placed the statue of Garuda on my altar and began praying for his assistance,
I noticed a difference in the kind of calls I was getting. Instead of the low-acuity patients who needed reassurance, I was being sent on extreme calls where life or death hung in the balance. Patients who were clinically dead and it was up to me to attempt to bring them back or let them go. A man who rolled his vehicle on the freeway into some bushes and was impaled through the neck by a branch, who was still alive when we arrived on-scene, but after fighting like hell for twenty minutes to gain access to him, was gone. Another man who had alcohol with his lunch and whose blood sugar was extremely high, who "fell asleep" and rolled his car on a city street where children were walking home from school. He was uninjured and refused to be transported to the hospital, and it fell upon me to admonish him for not taking better care of his health and making better choices, lest his irresponsibility cost him his life, or that of someone else. I also encountered motor vehicle accidents on my commute home from work as never before-- some with fatalities, and all where that potential was close at hand. Working with Garuda meant working with a lot of energy, I was learning, where the stakes were high.
On the morning of May 18th when I arrived at work, I asked Tony Valerio, the off-going
Firefighter-Paramedic, if he could do a shift trade with me. I needed June 3rd off, and I
offered to work June 2nd for him if he could work the 3rd. As it happened, he needed May
30th off, so we agreed to trade the 3rd for the 30th, instead of the 2nd. May 30th turned
out to be the last shift I worked with our Lieutenant, Vinny Perez, as both he and Tony
were killed in a house fire they responded to on June 2nd. In the disorientation that
followed the loss of two of my favorite people in this world, a loss that could have so
easily been of my own life, I forgot that on the night of May 18th I had stayed up late at
the firehouse and bid on some items on eBay-- a Garuda medallion I intended to wear
while on duty and a miniature cast statuette of Garuda from Thailand, as well as a
beautifully carved wooden statue of Garuda from Bali. The seller of the wooden statue
had contacted me to apologize for not being able to get it shipped immediately, because
he was dealing with an "expected death" in his family. I told him not to worry, that it
sounded like he needed Garuda's help more than I did at that point. I was at the firehouse
dealing with the aftermath of the fatal fire when the statue did arrive, and my wife said
that she passed a fatal motor vehicle accident as she was driving it home from the post
office box. Both Tara and Garuda found a place on the memorial table we set up for Vinny
and Tony at the firehouse-- initially amidst a sea of flowers, but remaining long after the
flowers' passing. Tara is there to remind us of the gentle compassion that Tony was so good at embodying, and Garuda represents the fierce protection of life that was Vinny's strength. It's up to those of us who remain in this world to animate those qualities now, through our
Ultimately, there may be but one God, but the energy that is Great Spirit takes on many
individualized forms as it moves through this world. Everyone reading this, as well as
every blade of grass and every rock, are some of those forms. Looking towards our source,
there are concentrations of energy that can assist, heal and protect us, so that we can be
successful in manifesting what we have come here to be. Call them what you want-- angels, guides, deities-- they love us and are available to help us if we but ask. Some we work with throughout our lives-- some for but an isolated moment in time. As far as my relationship with Garuda goes, I will always have a deep love and respect for him, and a gratitude for helping me through a very perilous and difficult passage of my life. Perhaps I'll work directly with him again in the future, but for now, I'm taking a break. This path became clear to me after the Garuda medallion I hung on the community altar at Chenery & Diamond in Glen Park disappeared. I know that whoever took it needs it more than I do now-- I only hope that whoever has it navigates their way through the high energy atmosphere of Garuda's world with good fortune and grace.
But more than the disappearance of the medallion, I feel that Garuda's place in my life was temporary because I was able to figure out what he was doing in my life, and I can now carry that wisdom from within. At first I thought that Garuda had come to me to help me rescue others. The outcome of that rescue being more often than not unsuccessful was confusing. Then I realized that he was helping me to rescue myself-- showing me time after time examples of the death that is the result of living life without respect for its sacred nature. The consequence of years of inhaling tobacco, of eating without moderation, of driving recklessly. We are forgiven for our self-destructive ways only for so long. If we fail to learn to treat ourselves and others and our lives as sacred past a certain point, well, justice will prevail, one way or another. We don't need to concern ourselves with rescuing others-- a task that isn't even possible. We need but to rescue ourselves from self-destruction, and all else will become clear.
Papergirl San Francisco is an annual mail-art and delivery systems art project that collects artwork from all over the world and, in the style of American paperboys, distributes the art freely by bicycle to people in the streets of San Francisco. Check out the amazing art submitted for this year's ride.
Papergirl SF volunteers are pedaling through the streets of San Francisco this morning. Tucked inside some of those art rolls is my love for you. Thank you Papergirl SF for your big dreams & hard work!
When I was nineteen I was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. I had been racing with some friends on a mountain road, crossed the centerline on a turn and hit a car head on. In the days that followed, the pain of the trauma I suffered began to fade, like the chemicals that develop a photograph on a piece of paper. What remained was an image of the interior of a helicopter, and the faces of the paramedics who rescued me and flew me back to the hospital where I'd been born, giving me another chance. My uncertainty about what career to pursue in this life had been replaced by the desire to turn the tables on my suffering, to put to good use the gift of my experience that made me better able to help others transcend their own crises.
The following year I took an EMT class, and got a job with an ambulance company doing transfers to and from convalescent homes. I spent time working in an ER, an urgent care clinic, and dispatching ambulances for a private company before getting to work on their 911 response units, with a paramedic partner. I still wanted more responsibility, so I went to paramedic school myself, working for a provider in a rural county for a couple years before getting hired by the public ambulance service in San Francisco, on the year of its centennial. For someone who wanted neither to be a firefighter nor an administrator, but merely work in the field as a line medic providing patient care, it didn't get any better than that. I'd been there a year or so when one of the twenty year veterans I worked a shift with told me about Tara.
As her legend goes, Tara was a bodhisattva in a prehistoric civilization on this planet, millions of years in the past. After many lifetimes, when she finally reached enlightenment, she did so in a female incarnation. As a female buddha she became a manifestation of the divine feminine. She is the buddha of compassion, who can rescue us from our fears and move us to a safer place. As such, Tara is the patron saint of paramedics. Since learning that, I found a medallion of Tara at a Tibetan Buddhist shop in the city, and wore it around my neck every time I went to work and wore a badge on my chest.
Tara helped me do my job for more than fifteen years there. Because I found that for all the procedures that paramedics can perform and all the drugs they can administer which sometimes prolong the patient's life, all that is really just an excuse to be able to be there with people in their crises. To be able to offer them kindness and comfort, to reassure them that they will get through what it is they're going through-- even if their physical body doesn't-- to distract them from the burden of their pain with lightheartedness, that's my real role. Both on the superficial physical level, and the deeper emotional and spiritual levels, I strive to competently do all I can to help alleviate their pain, stabilize their crises, and transport them to a higher authority for further evaluation and treatment. But I can't save anyone's life-- the best I can do is to give them an opportunity to save themselves. Whether they heal or not isn't up to me.
When an altar appeared on a fence in the neighborhood where I now work, I decided one morning when I was getting off duty to hang my Tara medallion there instead of in my locker. I figured that the people there trust me to protect their lives, why shouldn't I trust them to honor what I hold to be sacred as well? When I drove by the altar on my way to work a few days later, Tara was gone. I stared at the blank space where she'd been, and felt like I was staring into the blank eyes of a friend who had died and wouldn't be coming back-- I was going to have to go it alone now. I went through all the stages of grief over the loss-- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Whether it was a school kid, adult kleptomaniac, or Tara herself who took the medallion, they obviously need it more than I do. Besides, it's probably my own karma coming around for all the shiny things I coveted and stole back when I was a juvenile delinquent. Any intense experience we have in this life with another person, it seems like sooner or later we wind up experiencing both sides of it. The other thing is that to give something to the world as an offering-- and wouldn't it be best if everything we did was done as an offering-- is to not expect anything back for it. No particular result or reward, no return on an investment, save for the joy that comes from helping someone else.
I wound up getting a small statue of Tara and putting it up on the altar, in an attempt to turn the other cheek. Because it would be pretty inappropriate to remain in judgement of the thief of an emblem of compassion, after all. Whatever we have to pass through to get there, in the end we have to come back to Love. To that place where there's no you or me, just one spirit moving through this world, coming to know itself on its way back home.