I was on my way to a murder scene, walking to my car on a cold, bright February afternoon in the city of Kingston, NY. I'm a newspaper reporter,and I was on deadline. A woman had been murdered the day before. Now it was my turn to drive a few miles, ask the dead woman's neighbors the obvious questions, get the obvious answers and make a story of it.
Just ahead of me, a tiny old woman was limping along, lugging a two-drawer steel filing cabinet against her hip, taking a step or two, setting the thing down on the sidewalk, taking another couple steps. And so on.
A street person, I figured. She'd just copped the cabinet from someone's trash pile. And she was blocking the snow-crusted sidewalk, slowing me down.
I walked up next to her. Matched her speed. I looked down at her and saw she wasn't an old woman. I could see she was quite lovely and that she was smiling at me despite her burden.
I asked her if she needed help, half hoping she'd shoo me away. I still had a job to do.
She stopped in her tracks, looked up at me, rested the filing cabinet on the sidewalk and thanked me.
Hoo boy, I thought. Where to now? And how long would it take?
She pointed up the street and said "Not far. Up there."
A mind reader, I thought.
She stopped again.
I shook my head, as if I knew what she was saying. Then I got it: She was Tibetan.
"You know Dalai Lama?"
I laughed. Sure, doesn't everybody? Just to be polite, I said I'd seen him once, during a visit to nearby Woodstock, NY.
She nodded, seemed suitably impressed. On we walked. We didn't say another word until she pointed to a house halfway down the street.
"Where I live."
When we got there, she fumbled with the front door lock, opened the door.
"Second floor," she said, pointing skyward.
She skipped ahead of me. The door at the top of the stairs opened directly into her apartment. I looked up at her standing on the landing. Over her shoulder, a framed photo hanging on the wall behind her caught my eye.
As I got closer, I rested the filing cabinet on the top stair and looked more closely at the photo. It was a picture of her, in a radiant silk dress, standing next to the Dalai Lama.
I won't say I experienced some sort of transcendent moment then, that time seemed to stop and beckon me into some sort of new, spiritually enhanced state. But I will say this: Something told me the murder scene could wait for a while.
She told me her name, which I didn't hear well enough to repeat. The front room where I stood was heavily decorated in primary colors. Portraits of buddha and other deities hung on the wall. There was a small altar off to the right . A stack of CDs were splayed out on a table at the other end of the cramped room.
She offered me tea. I said no. I wanted answers, not tea. Who was she? What's with the Dalai Lama? She began to answer, then spun on her heel, left the room and returned, clutching what looked like a photo album in her hands.
"You know Peter Gabriel?"
She was pointing at a photo in the album, smiling.
She explained to my halting ears in her halting English that Gabriel had helped her record her music. She pointed to the pile of CDs. They all had her photo on their covers. I could see Gabriel's Real World brand on their sides.
She continued to flip through the photo album. There was Natalie Merchant. Annie Lennox. Michael Stipe. She hesitated and pointed to another photo of a guy in sunglasses, forgetting the man's name.
"Irish band..." she ventured.
"Yes," she said, seemingly delighted at my obvious expertise. "Bono."
Her name was -- and is -- Yungchen Lhamo. She's a world-renowned Tibetan singer-songwriter living in exile in the U.S. She fled her country by walking roughly 1,800 miles to India. Even the Himalayas couldn't stop her. Her extraordinary voice can be found on her CDs and in collaboration on various albums with the above-noted celebrities. She tours regularly, using her performances to benefit women's and Tibetan causes and charities. Here is a link, a taste.
A man who knows her better than I says she's a bodhisattva, which the Buddhist magazine Tricycle describes as "an ordinary person who takes up a course in his or her life that moves in the direction of buddha."
I don't think this adequately describes Yungchen. She's no ordinary person. But I believe she's moving in the direction of buddha, which, if I finally understood her correctly, is "Not far. Up there."