Restless Spirit: A Visit to Ananda Ashram, A Monastic Community of Camaldolese Women

My mother likes to say that I have a restless spirit. When she talks to friends and family she uses this phrase to justify the many places I’ve lived, traveled to, the romantic relationships I’ve had. It’s a phrase that both adequately describes me and irks me. The sense of nomadic existence, the unease at staying in one place both literally and metaphysically is something that I think she is proud of and a little ashamed of and by extension so am I. 
 
We walked the long path to Ananda Ashram. I had been told that it was much like the ashram we were staying but had “more flowers”. As we got closer I noticed the flowers. Fuchsia and gold bougainvillea and bird of paradise. A small bamboo forest off to the side. Creeping vines. It certainly looked different. “A woman’s touch”, I thought feeling a little guilty for making the gendered assumption that this place was full of flowers because clearly a woman decided to plant these. 
 
Ananda Ashram2We waited for Sister Shirley for a few minutes and when she finally arrived I understood what made this the “women’s ashram”. Her presence, her energy filled the space and it was a balm. Soothing and calm she greeted us with a gentle smile, her white clothing and pink sash floating in the wind. She explained the history of the ashram and the founding sister’s friendship with Father Bede (founder of the ashram where we were staying). She told us about the recycling of the cow dung to make methane for cooking, she described the hermitage where travelers from all over could come and stay. All the while I felt like I was floating in the ocean, embraced in a sea of calm waters. 
 
Someone in our group asked what brought her to the woman’s ashram and if she stayed all year. Sister Shirley then described her restless spirit. She talked about how she doesn’t like staying in any one place for very long. She talked about feeling called to pray and worship and discover the greater world and how because she’s spent so much time outside of India, she never really feels truly “Indian”. My ears heard her story. My heart, couched in the cotton of her presence leapt and I thought, “Kindred restless spirit. I see you.”
 
Ananda Ashram1Our group ended our time at the ashram. We thanked Sister Shirley, took a few pictures, put our shoes back on after visiting the small upper room chapel and started to make our way back down the path to our own ashram. I stayed behind. With tears in my eyes I thanked Sister Shirley and told her about my pride and shame for my restless spirit. I told her about how I feel sometimes outside of what my family considers normal and how meaningful it was to hear her story about never feeling truly Indian. I told her I sometimes never really truly feel anything because of this restlessness. She took my hand and with a tear in her own eye she thanked me. In this space, in her presence, in the woman’s ashram my spirit was no longer restless. It just was. 
- Jennifer Mahru