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Students’ morning prayer, in Jalgaon.

At the end of many prayers in which I participate here, I hear and sing, or chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” “Peace, peace, peace.” May there be peace in this place, peace for those who hear the bells, peace for our community, peace for the world.

I am always reminded of the prayer of St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

How do I pray such a thing, in the midst of poverty, inequalities in education, and stories of female feticide, rapes, and murders of women?

How do I pray that, on a smaller scale, when I am still hurt, jaded, and cynical from my classroom teaching experiences? When I cannot say for certain that the schools in which I taught could ever be truly a “safe space”?

And yet, what kind of teacher—or human, or Christian—am I if I give up hope? Sr. Carla Mae once told me that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is despair.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what happens when teachers “burn out.” I wrote a paper for my multi-religious contemplative capacities course entitled, “Ahimsa Practices for Tramautized/Tramautizing Teachers: How to Restore Peace-full Teaching.” In these three weeks, I’ve been listening carefully to the stories of teachers, and attending to what the schools here feel like. Do the teachers have warmth and regard for their students, or contempt and disdain? Are students energized and joyful, or reciting rote and fearful?

What meditative or restorative practices can heal teachers who work in circumstances where systematic injustices and dehumanizing bureaucracies discourage voice (read: vocation)?

We live in a world where peace feels frequently elusive, impossible, a nice quote to pin on an inspiration board before returning to sarcasm, individual competitiveness, black-and-white thinking, and practices that leave us feeling increasingly dead inside. Gandhi and the Reverend King are heroes, far removed from the kind of daily injustices we face. Unless our voices touch millions, we fear, it’s unlikely for us to see peace—or justice—in our lifetimes.

***

I had a long conversation with Prof. P. last week. Last year, I attended part of the funeral of his father. Twenty days before his father died unexpectedly, his teenaged nephew drowned. It was a hard summer for his family.

We sat together on a porch in Jalgaon, overlooking green hills and orchards. I told him that I had held his family in my prayers all year, and asked how they were.

Prof. P. mentioned how devout his sister-in-law is, how ordinary and good the lives of his families are, how the thousands drowned in sudden floods were at worship. And yet, he pointed out, thieves and looters live and thrive. We were talking about the problem of theodicy. Both of us used the phrase, “…in this life.” As in, “We just can’t understand the purpose of such loss, in this life.” Or, “…there are different kinds of karma, that we can’t understand, and it doesn’t make sense, the way things happen, in this life.”

I recited again a quote that is dear to me, from the Reverend King: “…the arc of justice is long, but it bends toward mercy.”

Jain cosmology, with its radically different sense of time, reminds me again and again that my mind is finite. The universe, and God, are infinite. Maybe I will be blessed with a few golden glimmers of Truth, of Possibility, where I understand, for one goosebumpy and numinous moment—the bending.

***

Remember how in A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace thinks he faces evil alone—a quick path to despair.

Mrs. Whatsit shares with him a glimpse of our planet Earth, seen from afar. A dark, pulsing cloud covers most of it. It is like a tumor, a living, present thing. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who reminds Charles Wallace and his friends that we are one of millions of those who work against the dark, who work knowing their tiny acts of light will not be overcome.

Charles Wallace is surprised; he didn’t realize this battle has been fought long before his particular pain. Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who offer reminders; L’Engle writes:

‘And we’re not alone, you know, children.’ came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter.

‘All through the universe it’s been fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.’

‘Who have our fighters been?’ Calvin asked.

‘Oh, you must know them, dear,’ Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly. “And a light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘Why of course, Jesus!’

‘Of course!’ Mrs. Whatsit said. ‘Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.’

‘Leonardo da Vinci?’ Calvin suggested tentatively. ‘And Michelangelo?’

‘And Shakespeare,’ Charles Wallace called out, ‘and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!’

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. ‘And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (65-66).

The mundane, daily, and systematic examples of injustice work to make us think that our impulses toward community, toward collaboration, and toward life-affirming action are silly, wrong-headed, and bound to fail.

As children of God, we are made to be light-carriers. If we tend to our spiritual selves and work in communities that can help us identify and remember our calling, we are better equipped to work against despair.

***

Practicing mindfulness may seem a selfish, tiny act—how is cultivating gratitude going to help my students in their poverty and hunger? And yet, we find that over time, the cultivation of a new kind of flexibility in the mind prepares us to be prepared and willing.

From childhood—ourselves threatened and made afraid from nursery school—we have been raised up in a posture of fear and despair. We forget so quickly our true potential. Even understanding that the history upon which we build assumptions may be faulty can change the position of our posture.

In Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink writes, “Learning the history of nonviolence is another way of rehearsing it. Furthermore, our ability to act may depend every bit on our knowledge of nonviolent methods and spirituality as on our fortitude” (300).

If I had to teach again, in such a situation, and I pray I will, I will do the following to begin with. I would teach the history of nonviolence, including the history and voices of those in the American Civil Rights Struggle and for every nation represented by my students. For my own good, as for theirs. I would commit to never using sarcasm, ridicule, or threats with my students—and would be forthright with them why I make this choice, and why it is difficult. I would share this challenge with my teaching peers.

I know from experience that when I have been honest with my students—in joy and humor, and in tricky times, admitting when things are hard and “right answers” far and few between, the energy in the room is one of deep community and connection. I didn’t know that when I engage with young people from my centeredness as a child of God, I am tugging a bit at the veil of despair that conceals our true natures that will help, one day, to upend it forever.

***

I pray that I will always have hope, and a healthy, noisy, thriving hope that fills my blood with oxygen and keeps me sharp and eager to work. I pray that I can grow in practices that help me see light, help me recognize peace when I see it, and keep me mindful of that arc of justice, ever ending toward the light.

All will be well. We are made for more than competition, poverty, sarcasm, and hopelessness. We are made to be in relationship, to heal one another, broken shard to broken shard, small light to small light.

It’s a good thing to recite “Peace, peace, peace,” many times a day. To take time to sharpen my eyes in looking for it, to reminding myself to not abandon it. I do believe that all will be well, and all shall be well.

I’m not sure how peace will come about, and in what forms it will take, but I trust that arc of justice, bending long to justice. I can see it and feel it, and I will not despair.

***

Portions of this reflection got their start in a paper I wrote for class in 2011, called, “Lights for Us to See By: A Critical Review of Engaging the Powers.”

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It’s strange to talk about this, and I feel slightly uncomfortable writing about it, but it’s an important part of my experience as a woman, as a person of privilege, and as a human moving through the world, in India, so it would be remiss for me to ignore it in my writing.

I started my period this week; last night, I soiled my bed sheets with menstrual blood.

Here are strands of my thinking:

  • The washerman won’t wash my underthings at all, because I’m a woman, but he definitely wouldn’t wash anything with menstrual blood
  • I have higher status than the washerman because I am Western, but he has higher status than be in terms of cleanliness (I am a woman; I menstruate)
  • I should not enter temples or recite mantras when I’m on my period
  • It is weird having servants and definitely disconcerting having a woman wash the floor by hand under my feet as I work

Here is what happened. I woke up, saw that I had made a stain on the undersheet, and was immediately ashamed, and wondered what I could do. In a hotel, I’d just ball up the sheet and put it with the towels. A faceless, nameless person would come without my seeing and replace it.

The cleaning woman came in, as she usually does. I gestured for her to come to my bed, and shame-facedly showed her my sheet. She said something in a reassuring voice, gesturing as if to say, “I work in the girls’ hostel at a university, I know about this, I can handle this.” At least, that’s what I felt she was saying to me; I felt reassured.

She smiled at me, she waved me away. She ended up washing the sheet by hand; she will remake my bed when she finishes; I won’t see her again until tomorrow, when she will greet me again warmly.

***

In Delhi, the woman who cleaned my room was named Gyanmanti. One morning, as I was writing out the day’s agenda, she came and showed me that she could sight-read most of the English words I was writing, in my teacher-perfect printing. She did not know all of the words, but she read them proudly. She also wrote, in English, “My name is Gyanmati.” She told me she had finished grade 5, and has three children, a girl and two boys.

Soni, the other cleaning woman at that residence, has two children, a girl and a boy. The girl is older, and speaks good English, because she has gone to a good school. Earlier this summer, Soni had to remove her daughter from that school because she cannot afford tuition. Her son remains in his good school. I saw Soni’s daughter last week, in a different school’s uniform. I said, “Oh, you are in a new school—do they have English?”

She said, “No, no English.” Her brother’s English will get better; maybe hers will diminish as she stops using it.

I think of Soni’s daughter, going to school past grade 5, and of the sons of the cleaning women, going to good schools where they will learn English, and marry women (maybe?) that don’t clean floors for Westerners.

The cleaning woman here speaks to me in Hindi, and I understand enough to move my things, show her the bucket, turn off the fan. Some conversation. Yes, I am married. No, I do not have children.

I showed Gyanmati photos of my family: here is my father, my grandmother, my mother in law. Here is my nephew (son of brother in law.) Here is my wedding photo (everyone loves that wedding photo.)

***

I was so grateful that the woman today cleaned my sheet, matter-of-factly, smiling at me. Does she begrudge me this extra task? Does she care if I make the bed myself, saving her the time? Am I like every other wealthy woman whose sheets she has cleaned?

Why do I want her to like me, to know I don’t take her for granted? And actually, I do take her for granted—I don’t even know her name, and would have been shocked if she’d refused to clean my sheet.

It’s all mixed up—feeling cared for, feeling relieved that someone else can handle my mess, feeling entitled to clean sheets, anger that I have to wash my own underwear, guilt that other people are taking care of me, a desire to pay for Soni’s daughter’s tuition, despair that there are dozens of other children in this web of servants and staff for whom I cannot pay.

Gratitude, and then a resolve not to dwell on feeling too grateful, because I cannot reciprocate.

Some people try to pre-clean their hotel rooms, or their houses, before the “cleaning lady” comes. I never felt that way, I never felt much shame at my position in terms of their position.

I think: Sometimes I am more powerful (you are the scout [cleaning person] for my room, I am a student here at Oxford) and sometimes I am less powerful (I am a lowly retail worker, you treat me like an imbecile while I wash your hands with our new body scrub.)

Of course, my ability to switch back and forth between experiencing power is itself a mark of privilege.

I want it to make me a better person that I am grateful for these women and their work. I want to somehow be absolved for my privilege—I want this woman’s smile and reassurance (I am happy to clean your mess) to be real, so that my guilt is diminished.

It’s like wanting a black friend to say, “You, you are different. You are not racist. You can’t help your privilege.” And in that desire, I put one more thing onto my friend, trying to rid myself of a burden that is not hers.

Also—I put my self into this woman’s existence. Like she’s going about her day, thinking about how nice I am. Like she’s thinking about me at all. She is not. She has her work, her worries, her life. Why do I think I am such a part of it?

It’s like when people say, about being at a nail salon, for example, “I hate it when they’re talking the whole time [in Korean]. I just know they’re talking about me.”

Well, no, they’re not. They’re really not talking about you. No more than we’re talking about the inconsequential, impersonal encounters of our days while they scrub our feet. It’s a seductive kind of egocentrism, that whenever we hear a language we don’t understand, to think we star in the conversation.

***

But here it is again—I imagine because the woman who cleans my room smiles at me, and admires my photos, that she likes me. That she knows I mean well. That she knows I appreciate her as a person, and will go about her day holding no grudge against me, or my stained sheets.

In the end, it’s all about me. It’s as boring and self-centered as endlessly recounting one’s own dream at a dinner party. Our own dreams are only fascinating to us.

So, this reflection is about being self-centered, feeling guilt, recognizing privilege and the ways I try to shirk it off, wanting recognition for noticing that guilt and privilege, and finally understanding that’s another form of selfishness.

Further strands on my mind: what is “women’s work,” caste, clean/unclean, imago dei, responding Gracefully to others’ work and help, humility, entitlement, gratitude.

What assumptions do I make about those who clean up after me, seen and unseen? Why is it so easy to start to feel entitled? Is it possible to have a conversation with Soni, or Gyanmati, that is removed from our relationship of servant/served? If I try for that, aren’t I just forcing one more task onto them, another chore?

When caretakers work for strangers, much of that work is emotional (smiling, responding warmly, offering reassurances)—what is my responsibility as the one being cared for, to avoid unintentionally taking advantage of this?

Rocks, ritual

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I had e-mailed with some of them beforehand, or answered questions on Facebook. But really, they were strangers—13 other women, mostly from the US, mostly schoolteachers.

I had returned to Delhi on the night train from Varanasi; most of the scholars from the six week program had departed or were in the process of departing. In charge of this last journey, I had gone back and forth between our four cars, checking and double checking that everyone had a seat, was settled, had dinner, had water, and was calm. I answered questions about lodging for the last night before they went to the airport. I answered questions about wifi, food, availability of ATMs, printing boarding passes, pick ups from the train station, and cost of auto-rickshaws. I mediated a few little conflicts, mostly cranky and tired nerves, and people weary of one another after six long weeks of travel and complicated academic research.

We said our farewells. One student was vomiting, sick. Another student had missed a flight due to visa problems. I kept problem-solving, sharing wipes, water, medicine, reassuring words, information.

The start of the teachers’ program: new people, new energy, new questions. Finally, an art teacher led us in a simple activity. We each chose a small rock. She had provided paintbrushes and acrylic paint. In silence, we were each to paint our rock, however we liked.

What a simple task. I don’t think I’ve done something so simple since I left home in May.

I looked at the colors, and chose white, pearl, bronze, dark copper, and pale pink. I painted my entire rock white, first, and then waited while it dried. I immediately found a flat side of the rock, and thought about ways to use that side, and whether I wanted to paint words, or a design, or another object.

It felt so good to paint! Everyone painted, including both Jain professors. The room was quiet for a long time. I loved seeing the pearlized surface of the rock once I used the pearl color, and then appreciated—my mouth watered—the sensation of laying down the paint with the wet curve of my cheap paintbrush.

It was so satisfying to see the surface of the rock change, to make my creative mark on it, to be left alone to work with pretty shades of paint, chosen only by me.

The rocks are radically different. One person painted a really great tiny portrait of a face, another did an elegant and minimal flower, following the grain of the marble in the rock. Some people used every primary colors, others used restraint. Each morning, we bring our rocks and place them on white cloth. At night, we take them back to our rooms with us.

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Sometimes, I place my rock colored-side down so only the golden-pearl side shows up. Sometimes, I put my rock so it slightly touches my roommate’s. It’s such a tiny ritual, and it’s not very intellectual or complicated at all…and yet, it satisfies me.

One of the challenging things about travel is that we have so little of our familiar home routines. And actually, this can be transformative, as we practice the posture of hands open, ceding control.

It’s a kind of balance: I always decorate whatever room I’m staying in. I hang maps and make collages out of wrapping paper, newspapers, and mantra cards. I put up photographs, patterned paper, and letters above my bed. I hang scarves and put out objects, stacking my books under a make-shift paperweight. I like to walk into my room and see something home-like, something recognizable as “Stephanie’s room.”

And small rituals reassure us. It’s interesting that something as elemental as rocks, paint, silence, and routine (carrying home, carrying back) can provide a touchstone for the group, a marked beginning and a little melody to carry us through the day.

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My rock, with the pearl coat drying.

 

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At the train station; in addition to the packed lower class cars, young men climb up top.

Throughout my work in education and inter-religious dialogue, I refer to Piaget’s idea of “disequilbrium.” The uncertain, nerve-wracking, unpleasant feeling that happens when we encounter something new in the world.

I think my knowledge is intact, I encounter something previously unknown, and things shift for me…eventually, I am able to incorporate my new understanding, and then I have learned it. We cannot learn without disequilibrium.

India is a place par excellence for experiencing disequilibrium. And yet, I also experience so many moment so grace, or delight, or unexpected pleasure. Some examples:

Moments of disequilibrium:

  • Eating the same brown chipati and cooked vegetables at every meal
  • Wanting to stick to a time schedule, but things running too long, later, or not happening at all
  • Sitting on my bed and watching a woman clean my floor by hand, crouched constantly, wiping every bit of the surface
  • Being stared at, hearing “hello, hello,” by vendors and touts who want to get my attention, being photographed with or without my permission
  • Haggling: the weary, constant pressure of not knowing if I’m paying too much, compounded by the guilt that I could probably may more than they ask
  • Having access to places poor Indians or other women are not allowed, given my status as a white, Western woman
  • Not having any control over where or when or what I eat
  • Attending very long lectures with no discussion, not the educational style that is common for me
  • Communicating with the few Hindi words I’ve used, and few English words a driver or cook (for example) know, and feeling exhausted, unsure, and frustrated all at once
  • Riding in a bicycle rickshaw: feeling too heavy, guilty as we go up hills, a deep and panicked guilt that another human is sweating and straining to carry my weight—and yet, he eagerly sought out my business, and is happy to receive my fare
  • When I buy a votive from a little boy on the ghats, and a little girl of age seven, also selling votives, says to me accusingly (and correctly), “Oh buying from the boy but not the girl! That is not right!”
  • Hearing of progressive campaigns in the north that work to educate families that “Two girls equal one boy”
  • Feeling guilty when I throw trash on the street at the train station, but I don’t feel guilty when I throw larger amounts of garbage away in the US because I don’t see it
  • Begging: being told that we shouldn’t give money to child beggars, but they touch my hand and follow me when I avoid looking at them
  • Hearing that the woman who cleans my room has had to remove her daughter from school because she can no longer afford tuition; yearly tuition is $200 US
  • The washerman won’t wash my underwear; he will wash men’s underwear only
  • I am restricted from visiting temples if I’m on my period
  • Sour yogurt drink: I don’t like it, but people seem happy and eager to give it to me, so I drink it
  • The bird hospital: I don’t see the point of keeping dying and injured birds (mostly pigeons) alive and feeding them
  • Educational style: I feel torn between wanting to give advice on how things could be “corrected” (ie, made more Western) and learning to get along in a new style
  • I don’t like taking off my shoes to go into the dining room and eat. I hate the feeling of food and dirt on my feet as I stand in line to get food.
  • Non-Western toilets, especially on the train

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The Jaipur chef preparing golgappa for us. I was definitely unsure about eating these, especially after he dips them by hand into spicy water…but they are delicious and I can eat ten at a time.

Moments of delight:

  • Finding food I like, complimenting the cook, and he remembers that I like it and makes it again
  • Coming across a wedding procession
  • Talking to children about their school, showing them pictures of my family and home, sharing songs
  • Fresh mangoes that have been chilled all afternoon
  • Clean sheets on the train, falling asleep and sleeping soundly on an overnight train
  • Strangers anticipating my question or need for directions, and helping me
  • The reverence for books: the highly cared-for libraries, with old texts behind lock and key, the solemnity with which the librarians let me take out individual books
  • Being welcomed into worship at the temple every time I go, getting to anoint the statues, placing fruit, singing, clapping, and praying
  • Looking at children’s work and art in schools
  • Feeling grateful for my healthy body
  • Feeling grateful for my education and opportunities
  • Feeling inspired to teach and learn
  • Having a shop-keeper move heaven and earth to find me a container of peanut butter
  • Experiencing Bollywood movies
  • Following Gandhi’s footsteps at the place of his martyrdom
  • Meeting teachers in their 70s and 80s who still have a deep passion for teaching peace and justice
  • Singing old gospel songs along with table and saringi

When I look at this list, the moments of discomfort seem small, individually, but being so long in a strange place—they all add up. They all work together to remind me, constantly, that I am [not yet?] at home here. I can encounter something completely unexpected at any given moment, and so must maintain a posture of possibility.

And, it’s this openness to possibility, paradoxically, that leads to many of the things that delight me. A willingness to try to keep talking, or to sing, or to dance, or to sit down and talk to children. To try yet another new food. To get on the train, the boat, the rickshaw, without knowing where it goes next.

One of my professors wrote a book about social activism; she posits that those who spend a great deal of time outside of their own country become fundamentally changed. This change informs the way they work for justice. I pray that I will not lose my willingness to try new things; basically, I hope that each day, I am conscious enough of delight to live through the disequilibrium.

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Pilgrim feet?

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“Travel flirts with the unknown—that’s why we do it. There are a lot of responses to the unfamiliar. Fear is only one of them: there’s also resistance, denial, delight, hope, attention.
 
Tourists respond to the unknown by consuming it, whether by purchasing artifacts or doing ghost walks or buying postcards. Pilgrims respond to the unknown by simply being there.” –Martha Stortz, The Progress of Pilgrimage

First of all, I love postcards. Even when I was having worship-full moments at the cave churches in Turkey, I was now and then thinking, “I hope they have a postcard of this!”

I want to keep something, to hang on to it, to use it later for a gift card or tuck it into my hope chest. I want proof that I’ve been there, to see it on my refrigerator every morning as I get milk for my coffee, to say, “I was at a holy place and it was beautiful and I have lived in the world.”

I love the tangible, the physical, the keepsake. I want photos of my friends and loved ones. I got my ears pierced a second time the first week I was in Oxford—it was so dreamy, and crazy, and overwhelming. I wanted a spot to rub on my body to mark the occasion. Last year, I got my nose pierced during 48 hours alone in Varanasi. I felt floaty, like I wouldn’t remember what I had experienced (despite blogging, photographs, prayer beads, books) and I wanted that moment of nerves and [dirty] steel.

I’ve been thinking about pilgrimage these past few weeks, here in India. I’ve been trying to both help my classmates, and wondering about what helps someone have a good experience when traveling in a new place.

The idea of “pilgrim” is helping me frame this. I like to be in control. I don’t like days or trips where I don’t know what is going to happen. And yet, in India… one pilgrim suggests, “Prepare carefully, and then prepare to change all your plans.”

It’s hard to do this, especially when we carry with us our “stuff.” My stuff includes: I am [relatively] wealthy, I am used to getting my way, and I have agency. Like, if I’m sitting in a table I don’t like in a restaurant, I have the wherewithal and means to get a different seat. I can change apartments, wall color, beds, city in which I live. I can save up to by a car, or a scooter. I can take Spanish lessons, or scuba diving lessons. If I see it in a magazine, I can find it and purchase it. This is crazy—the amount of things I have access to and means to get.

And so, when I come to India, it feels like I don’t have agency anymore. Someone else makes my food choices, books my train tickets, creates the agenda for visits, lectures, holy time, and free days. This should be a gift, it could be. And yet, my habitual response is to think about ways I would do it differently, what I would like to do or eat [instead] and to chafe against all the unknown.

And yet, when I think about the holiest, most mind-blowing and blessed times of my life, they are often when I was not in charge. Moments sitting in the choir, in my home church, next to a dear friend…in prayer and song, being completely physically overcome.

Late, late nights with friends, when I had trusted them to choose the drive, choose the music, follow the conversation, and know that I was no longer judged—a bliss, a rest, a sensation all over my skin of belonging.

Of reading a book come recommended, that I didn’t know I would like, and finding a character who stays with me always, changing one way I see even myself.

Following a professor’s advice, following a new path along the river in Oxford, climbing the highest temple staircase…all against my first thought, and then arriving—like popping a particularly thick-skinned soap bubble—into a new understanding of my-self in the world.

I didn’t have control over any of those things. And yet, I wouldn’t be who I am without them. This is a strange tension—when to let go, when to try and steer.

I haven’t figured it out. The word “practice” gives me hope. Contemplative practice, teaching practice, “setting up a practice,” “practicing” yoga… I have some tools: I read. I take advice. I listen to old people, young people, dear friends—and try to connect all of the advice, and stories into something that helps me make sense of the world. I am willing to try, even if I make a fool of myself. I’ll try the new phrase, the new dance move, the daal.

As I said after I led the dancing for Mother Mataji this year, “It’s not that I’m a great dancer, but I make up for it in enthusiasm.”

***

I once had a therapist point out to me that, physiologically, anxiety/fear is the same sensation as excitement. Sometimes, when I’m feeling the adrenaline, I check in with myself. I say, “Is it possible you’re a little excited about this? Is it possible this is a good thing that part of you is eager for?”

That happens a lot in travel. I feel the nerves ringing, and check, “This is kind of scary. But is it possible this is also…delightful? Worth noticing, at least for a moment, before you run away?”

“Practicing pilgrimage.” This is what I’m thinking about, here in the rain near the Ganges. I’m covered by bug bites, and beginning to tire of mangoes. I would give Rs. 500 for a fresh, Golden Delicious apple.

I start to get impatient with my classmates. I think, “Just try it. Be grateful. Don’t be afraid!” And then I remember a time when I’ve burst into tears because the restaurant I had hoped about all week is closed and my plans have to change. I don’t like new things! I resist the unexpected. Maybe it’s part of our human-ness. Hence: practice.

The Jains believe that every living thing has a soul, and every soul is on its own path to omniscience. I’m not better than you, or better than a tree, because each of our souls is learning, striving, growing…on its own. Maybe you can offer me some tips, some compassion, some hints for enlightenment.

Like a honeycomb of musical practice rooms, all of us going over the tunes we’ve been assigned, stretching our fingers, correcting our posture, trying again. And again, practice.

And then, sometimes, it’s time for a recital. I put on my ball gown (true story) and nervously practice one more time before getting on the train. You bring a picnic, a bottle of wine, some Whitman to celebrate afterwards. We all gather, to listen to one another: an appreciative audience sometimes shepherds miracles.

Small children can fiddle circles around me, but I do my best. I am relieved, and excited; we are happy and feel invigorated, walking to the park afterwards, several conversations swirling around, about bravery, audiences, making mistakes, good teachers.

I want to practice pilgrimage because I’m greedy for those moments: invigorated, talking together, courage, mistakes, appreciating miracles.

Reluctance

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One of the last days in Jaipur, several of the group wanted to do a tour of three Jain temples; we needed to send a staff person with them, and I was the only one available. Sigh. I didn’t want to go. I had seen the temples. I was tired of coordinating, of answering questions, talking to the driver, figuring out food and water… I wanted to stay in one place, get work done, and not sweat.

But of course, I was “happy” to go. Of course I want my colleagues to see these amazing temples, and besides: this is why I am here. I put on extra deodorant, baby-powdered my entire body, got two bottles of water and money for the driver, and headed out.

I once read a bit of CS Lewis where he talks about doing things one doesn’t want to do. He framed it beautifully, by first asking about one’s love for and commitment to God. He helps us imagine how we would rush to do any single thing for Jesus, if he only needed and asked. And I can imagine that–walking great distances to bring expensive perfume, or staying up all night in a garden. Of course I would do the very thing God asks me to do.

And then Lewis reminds us: What if the thing God asks you to do is this? To sit in class, for hour after hour, and study even when you hate the subject? To stay up with the baby, rocking and rocking, even when you are so, so tired? To listen for a little longer to the tiresome woman at coffee hour after church? To help your neighbor move, even though it’s hot outside and you’ve worked overtime every day this week.

I’ve often thought of this, in long lectures, long train trips, during stressful or tiresome conversations. I say, “This, this moment/chore/conversation/task: this is what I am asked to do, in this moment and on this day.” It helps me feel the whole picture–that all of the little things I do are connected to bigger things–and to remind me not to just do the brave/exciting/laudable things, but also to tend to the mundane.

So I called this to mind. I said, “Stephanie, this is the thing you need to do, today. This is the one thing you are here to do.”

It was a truly great day. At the first temple, on a huge hill overlooking the city, the rain clouds swept in. I sat on a bench and watched the green of the trees and the white marble turn bright and odd, as the gray storm light swept in. I knew my camera would never capture it, so I tried to tell my brain, “Remember, remember, remember.” The wind was cool and the leaves turned their backs.

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By the time we got to the second temple, the rain had ended, but the air was cool and no one else was at the temple. We had it to ourselves. I wandered around, and found that alone, with the cool air, it was like entering a temple for the first time. I felt blessed and lucky to have access to such a holy place. With the sun hidden, the votives seemed more essential.

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I found an empty part, either under construction or abandoned. A metal and stone dome covered the space. Either I was talking to myself, or praying out loud, because I realized the echo was fantastic.

And so, with no one around, I began to sing. Oh, it was the best acoustics I’ve ever experienced. If I held out a note long enough, and my voice was directed dead ahead, the echo would hold out the note long enough for me to harmonize with myself. I sang “Beulah Land,” an old hymn I always find near to mind.

When my grandmother died, my sister and I sang at her funeral. The night before, in my grandparents’ old farmhouse bedroom, we practiced. I had never really sung with my sister before, unless it was along to a radio or tape, or maybe in church. Her voice sounded like mine. Sitting next to her on the bed, I felt like our voices were the same–it was so strange, hearing two of the same voice.

I remembered that moment, and other times I’ve sung that hymn, as I sang there under the dome. I love that even when I am wrong-headed and stubborn, and reluctant to do something, I can still end up having an amazing experience.

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By the time we got to the third temple, the light was changing again, for evening time. I had the rooftop to myself, and enjoyed peeking through the temple vimanas (towers) at the surrounding buildings.

I have sort of been taking for granted that I’m in India again. I’m distracted by logistics, by making sure things are going smoothly, with answering e-mails and preparing for the next group. And there are fewer surprises: I was expecting the smells, sounds, crowds, and heat. And yet, of course–this being India–delight and awe catch me up short, when I least deserve it.

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Yesterday, six of us left the Heritage Walk on our way to find the Wind Palace. We walked, through shops opening on Sunday morning, selling silver bowls, hammered food containers, shoes, fried food, statues of gods and goddesses, tee shirts, textiles, fabric, saris, and bangles.

When we thought we were close to the correct gate, but couldn’t find a sign or entry place, I asked a street vendor. Before the vendor could answer me, another man came up to tell us. He offered to take us to the gate, which I took to mean we would need either to pay him, or come to his shop, in return. I was relieved to see that we could actually see the gate from where we were standing, so we wouldn’t actually need to give him anything in return.

It turned out that he did need something from us. He said, “I need your help. I speak English, but I cannot write it. I want you to write a letter to a women in England.”

We agreed, and followed him. On the way to a quiet space with a place for me to sit and write, he got a newspaper so I’d have something clean to sit upon. We borrowed paper from one of my classmates, and as we all sat with him, he began to dictate a letter.

He asked me to write in block capitals; he intended afterwards to re-copy it in his own handwriting.

He dictated his love for Celia, how much he missed her, and how he looked forward to being together again. He asked her to send her flight information, so he could pick her up next month in Delhi. He asked our advice for any good phrases in English that would convey his love for her.

When I finished, he had me read it aloud, so he could hear how it all sounded together. How strange, to be reading aloud to some Celia, from a quiet alley in the Pink City.

Of course, nothing is uncomplicated in India. My effusiveness during the writing and re-reading of the letter must have given a wrong impression. There’s a reason we suggest to visiting students that they keep their distance from men, including male classmates, and avoid smiling at strangers.

When I finished reading, the man wanted to give me a hug; I accepted, and he tried, three times, to kiss me on the mouth. I avoided it by doing a double-cheek air kiss, and finally said, “Enough!” as my classmates also said, “Okay, okay, enough!”

I forget myself easily. And then, I am grateful that I live and work in a place—even with plenty of injustices, inequities, and difficult conditions for many women, nearly all of my experiences with men have been safe and positive. The encounters that have been unsafe, wrong, or frightening are in the minority, and no one would say they are my fault. Not that my effusiveness here brings anything that happens to me on myself. It’s difficult to try and parse out responsibility, physical safety, and cultural differences.

I don’t regret writing the letter. And I felt safe because I was surrounded by friends, male and female. But I again tell newcomers, as I will tell the teachers who arrive next month: be more modest, and more subdued, and less interactive, than you would normally be. Not because what might happen is related to anything we do or say, but because it’s hard enough to navigate many differences and misunderstood intentions without sending signals we may not understand.

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