In 1999 I was finishing a book about my gypsy grandmother Maria and her journey from eastern Ukraine to California, and all she had endured along the way. An editor at Scribner told me the voice was good, strong even, but suggested I cut my 700-page book down to 350 pages. Eight months pregnant, I broke out into sobs on his office couch.
“Go have your baby and come back when you’re ready,” he said. “This is just the business of writing.” Right then and there, I decided I wasn’t cut out for the business of writing. My lifelong dream vanished.
Sage was born the day after my 25th birthday, and I didn’t have it together upon arrival. Things hadn’t worked out with his father, my book wouldn’t be published, and then when Sage was 4 weeks old, he needed an operation to save his life. I was broke, without insurance or a job, but I was miraculously able to get him the procedure by standing up to the doctors who’d initially refused him care without insurance. Who knew birth defects were considered preexisting conditions?
I did whatever work I could to support us. I painted houses, worked in a shoe store, became a secret shopper, did nude modeling for art classes, and in the rare times I could use my education, I helped other writers with editing and website publishing. I’d show up for work with Sage in a rocking car seat, praying he’d keep quiet until the job was done and the cash was in my hand. I felt like a terrible mother and beat myself up with the constant question: How could I have brought this beautiful baby into such a mess?
Between odd jobs, I spent afternoons in the library at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy in Ojai, California. With Sage sleeping in his sling, I studied Annie Besant, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and other enlightened masters. One day, the longtime librarian Lakshmi said, “Zhena, your son has come into this incarnation with his own karma. His early suffering will lead to very blessed later years.”
Her words startled me—how could a baby’s suffering be his own? How could my mistakes not be the cause of my child’s pain? Before, I’d seen Sage and me as one—and his birth defect as my fault. The poverty and instability I brought him into were my shame, which I’d used to isolate us from the world.
With swift certainty, Sage’s presence taught me it wasn’t about my pride and that I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I had to create a life for us—fast. Mustering as much strength as I could, I asked God what I could do. The solution from on high? Gypsy tea parties with belly dancers and tea leaf readers. I tied my heritage into my hobby and with all the research I’d done about my grandmother’s gypsy lifestyle, I found it easy to take my tea blends and create a gypsy theme around them.
Toddling Around Tea
As my business became a success, Sage grew up mainly in our small warehouse filled with tea. He played with shipping boxes as I struggled with QuickBooks. His first noncongenital injury was from climbing a tea-bag heat sealer. His room was a pup tent on my office floor, his babysitter a bunch of VHS tapes from thrift stores. As I built the business and did my best to be a reliable mom, baby Sage grew into a beautiful boy. Through hard times, he taught me the power of his quiet, wise, discerning heart. After four major operations, his body was healed, and we had a multimillion-dollar business based on a purpose greater than our pain.
After all, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea did more than sustain the two of us. When I visited India and Sri Lanka and saw the impoverished conditions of the tea pickers, I committed to pioneering fair trade practices in the tea industry that would bring them health care, child care, maternity leave, safe housing, clean water, education for their children, and even retirement funds. It was risky for a new business not yet turning consistent profits, but giving back to those who made our success possible became a vital part of my mission.
Flash forward almost a decade, to late 2008, as I looked around the huge warehouse, surveyed the dozen employees, and reflected on the millions of tea units we sold annually, I realized the business my son inspired had become my spiritual practice. Sage’s birth had brought unseen blessings and I’d surreptitiously become a devotee of his teachings. I don’t believe I was his parent so much as he was my teacher. He taught me that love and a mission to serve will move obstacles from any path.
By this time I was remarried, and Sage, at 9, had his own desk in the building, interacting with the staff as a peer. He tasted tea with me and gave me tasting notes. His birth and karma transformed me into a woman with means. Getting health insurance, finding stability, and helping the tea workers out of poverty had all been born of our struggles.
Sage also helped pick Gerard. My son had never really bonded with any of my previous boyfriends, so I’d quit dating altogether. One night, as I served tea at a Ram Dass event, a bright-eyed man in a long Hindu kurta took a shine to me and began coming up to Ojai to see us. Once, at a concert, Sage tested his love for me by demanding he kiss an imposing security guard on the cheek to prove his dedication. Gerard did, and Sage became his biggest fan. Our tea workers were soon throwing us a wedding in Sri Lanka.
A Mia for Momma
Within a week of closing a round of nearly $5 million in venture capital for my business, I noticed I was feeling woozy. In disbelief, I bought a pregnancy test at lunch and it tested positive. I should have been over the moon, but I was afraid the new investors would fire me.
“Zhena, the investors invested in your company, which was created to support your first baby,” Gerard said, hugging me. “You don’t think this baby will bring his or her own set of blessings?”
I recalled how the tea workers had hosted our wedding in a Lakshmi temple in the tea fields. My mentor and tea supplier, Gnana, had said, “Zhena, if you have a baby girl, she will be an incarnation of Lakshmi,” the Hindu goddess of wealth.
Before this, I hadn’t been able to get my business funded. During the 2008 economic crash, no one was investing in socially responsible companies like mine. I’d had at least a hundred fruitless meetings with potential investors. Then I met a new investor in New York, and within a couple weeks he’d funded the company. This was so unlikely that people called it a miracle. After the funding, I found out I was five weeks pregnant. My baby girl’s conception happened within days of meeting this potential investor. Surely, I thought, this was the karma my little Lakshmi brought with her.
While my belly grew, I overcompensated and worked extra hours. I wanted to ensure my investors that this new baby would not only help me build the business, but like Sage, would also inspire product launches and “hockey-stick” growth. Gerard would take Sage home at night and I’d work late, with a bag of whatever I was craving.
One day, a friend called to say she’d had a dream about the baby. “She wanted me to tell you her name is Mia,” she said.
Sage and I repeated the name over and over. We decided it was her name when we realized it was short for Maria, my gypsy grandmother’s name. Mia was born with a birthmark on her third eye, a pink bindi that became dark red when she cried. We took her home, and she had an entirely different message for my life: Go back to writing. The new investors hired a CEO and moved the company to Los Angeles. Soon, my services were “no longer needed.” I was a little sad, but soon I found myself back where I’d started—writing. But this time, I had a healthy Sage, a bright-eyed Mia, a loving Gerard, and the resources to write without worrying where our next meal would come from.
I wrote a book about my journey, with Sage as my theme, and planned to self-publish. But a scout from Atria found my book through a writing workshop and soon made an offer. I started out as a writer, took a 14-year business detour, and ended up right where I’d begun.
Through the path Sage had put me on, I’d fallen in love with business, and the business of books. And through the path Mia put me on, I was back where I’d started, but more inspired, mature, and conscious of the blessings. Every cell in my being knows my children’s karma has been my saving grace. I credit them for everything. The stories, the strength, the business acumen, and the journey of my soul’s growth. The big question now: What will grandchildren bring?