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.