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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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detailing inside a tuk-tuk…like our own personal fortune for the ride

All is well.

The head chef/driver took me to Varanasi Railway Station last Sunday afternoon. It had been raining; not only was there no electricity in the station, or in the trains, but the station was flooded. I followed him through the dark, through the crowds, through ankle deep water into the waiting room.

He doesn’t speak enough English for us to talk, so he just sat with me, in silent solidarity, while we waited for my train. I am finishing _Anne of Green Gables_ on my Nook/iPhone, which I probably haven’t read in twenty years. As I sat next to him in the crazy waiting room, uncertain what the next day–trip to Delhi to try and get a new passport and visa–would hold, I read the part where Matthew dies. He has been so good to Anne, and done the best he could in his taciturn way.

I was struck by this man, a near-stranger to me, and the fact that he prepares all of our food. Every morning, he comes up to the rooms and says, “Breakfast,” to wake us up. He is proud to show us when there are special treats, or sweet.  He sat with me for more than an hour. I felt tears come to my eye and I couldn’t tell if it was from the book, or from being helped.

When my train came, he used his phone as a flashlight on the dark train, taking me through the cars to my seat. He gave me his phone number, and tried to explain that he would pick me up on Tuesday morning. We said good-bye. I was in an un-AC car, so my window was open. A few minutes later, his face appeared in the window. He stayed until my train departed.

***

In Delhi the following morning, I was met by Prof. Rahul, who also made himself known by appearing in my window. I guess they just walk down the length of the train cars until they see my white, blonde head. Rahul took me to the Embassy, and then worried when they wouldn’t let him in. I told him I would be fine.

The Embassy was a marvelous place, full of American accents, strong AC, peanut M&Ms, and kind helpfulness. I actually had a new passport (an “emergency passport”) within the hour.

The Indian Foreigners’ Registry Office as trickier. Much more chaotic, fewer computers (I saw none), and many more desks heaped with paper files. I had little hope that I’d have a new visa before my night train back to Varanasi left.

And yet– everyone was kind, helpful. I had to get a new passport-sized photo for the visa application, and found a pack of school boys running a soda and tobacco stand with a sign that said “photo stat.” I had no idea how they were going to take a passport photo; even when they whipped out the digital camera I doubted. They had me climb over the stone wall into their hole-in-the-wall shop, and sit in front of the soda cooler. Then they produced a white piece of board, and placed it behind me. Voila! I laughed, and primped and tossed my hair for the photo, and gathered quite a crowd of children. They used a small digital printer, and four four rupees, I had four small photos.

My number one travel tip is to have a copy of your passport and visa– that battered photocopy of my original visa was like gold; it proved that I had had a valid visa, and gave the IFRO a starting place to trace me back to the airline, and verify I was legal.

After four hours, and many vague reassurances, I finally got called back to the official desk. The gentleman stamped once, stamped twice, filled in the stamped squares, and used a tiny piece of string to “staple” my papers together. Then he handed my my stamped passport. I said, “My visa? I have? I can leave okay?” He said, “yes, yes, this is your new visa. You are okay.”

I was so surprised, and so grateful, that my eyes filled up. I hope and pray that government offices in my homeland treat foreigners as well as I was treated. I did the traditional show of respect I’ve seen Jain and Hindu scholars and supplicants do for their gurus and teachers– I kissed my fingers and touched the ground in front of their desk. They laughed and clapped their hands in their surprise.

I said, “Thank you so much! I wish I could back you a cake.” The head gentleman said, “Your affection and gratitude are thanks enough.”

I paid $135 for the new passport, the visa was free, and my train tickets were bought by another professor here because I had no debit cards at the time.

Rahul was catching the same train back up to Varanasi, and so made sure I was settled in my car before we departed. An elderly Indian, retired from British airlines, told me about the books he is writing–on the eight wonders of the world he’s seen, and on India threw his own eyes–during the first part of the train ride. Then, I climbed up into the top berth, right underneath the AC, under a clean sheet and wool blanket laundered by hands I’ll never see, my new passport safely in my backpack under my head, and fell deeply asleep.

***

The next morning, the chef/driver picked us up (in the car! what a treat!) and drove us back to PV. When we parked on campus, he turned to me and said, “Breakfast?” He was not satisfied with my only taking tea, and insisted I take two bananas.

Today, we had our last day. Yesterday I finished my paper (really a four-week curriculum and full teachers’ guide, with resources) on a Jain-based–emphasizing compassion and perspective-taking–for secondary school students.) Today I presented my project, and we had our last lunch. Our last mangoes! We’re about to venture out onto the ghats… tomorrow my classmates will leave. I’ve planned another “open mic” for tonight on the roof, a chance to share moments that have struck and stayed with us at some point during the trip. I can’t wait to hear what we’ve all found.

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So, our plan worked. Yesterday at 9:30 AM, my classmate Devon and I went back to the set of “Dance, India, Dance” and he blew them away in his audition. They asked him to arrive later in the afternoon to tape.

While he was performing, not only were we the crowd going wild, but even the band was taping him with their cellphones. Oh, he did breakdancing (two minutes’ worth!) to James Brown’s, “Sex Machine.” Awesomeness. They were also looking for a singer, so Nelda sang two songs with the band. I was not lying when I told the assistant director, “Your audience will love this!”

After Devon performed, two professional Bollywood dancers came up, with Matthew, another classmate, and the four of them had a kind of cross-cultural dance off.  So cool.

Later that day, we were treated to a private sarangi performance. Ten of us gathered with the musicians; it was splendid. After they played several songs, they asked if anyone wanted to sing– sing along, and they would provide backup with the instruments. I sang “Beulah Land.” So, so strange and otherworldly to sing a song I’ve known (and sung) since childhood, a country church song, backed by instruments with an entirely different mode and sound.

Several others sang, and we heard amazing, heart-full renditions of songs, against this new background. It was one of those sublime moments that happens in a new community– you’re listening together, feeling unexpected frissons of nostalgia and wonder, and then you literally begin to harmonize: on “Down to the River to Pray,” harmony began, next to me on either side, from across the room, and then I added my own voice.

If you think about it, spontaneous harmonizing is kind of holy, and a good metaphor for how we ought to try to move through life. You listen carefully, you appreciate with whole-heart the voices of others, and you take a brave leap to join in yourself. And you can’t force it…when it arises naturally, it is the loveliest of all, gilded even by its unexpectedness.

What could even begin to top such a day? Oh, an Indian wedding, that’s all. We learned another life lesson yesterday: Always follow fireworks. After the sarangi performance, we heard fireworks outside. Four of us decided to follow them; we found ourselves in the middle of a parade bringing the groom to the bride and reception site. Dancing, lanterns, a wildly decorated horse, and a band. Oh, we danced. And one of the relatives invited us to come along. And then, at the reception site, we were invited in and welcomed hugely.

The hospitality! Everyone we met wanted to know if we were enjoying ourselves, where we were from, and made conversation. It was like a regular wedding, I guess, except we started out being _complete strangers_ to the wedding guests. Can you imagine such a radical graciousness? An extension of the most beautiful part of your family to include bystanders and stragglers? Oh, and the food was absolutely the best I’ve had in India…

 

Me, Ashleigh, and Nelda in the crowd.

 

One of the traveling chandeliers– the wedding procession had two lines of these, one on each side of the parade. Giant, gas-lit chandeliers. I was smitten.

 

The entrance to the reception.

 

Fresh naan! There was a whole naan station; four women crouched up on a ledge, making the dough into little balls. Several men were kneading and making the dough. Another pair of men cooked them over the coals, and a last man popped the biggest air bubble when it came off the grill, and dipped it in hot butter. Oh, my. The bottoms of the naan was salty from the coals.

From the big (reality television) to the little (bursts of fire-warmed salt on my hungry tongue), yesterday was again filled with the absolutely unexpected. And I couldn’t ask for more.

 

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Good-bye, New York City.  It was hard, the entire last semester, to really understand that we were leaving. I was too busy, carrying too many last minute responsibilities, and the last semester at school was really, really hard.  I think only in the past few weeks have I understood that I am really gone– I won’t be back at my church, I won’t see “my kids” again, I won’t see as regularly my dear friends who are still there.

We spent July in Red Bay, Ontario.  Matt’s grandmother’s cottage: Matt’s mother has gone nearly every summer since she was a baby, so has Matt. Hammocks, water, sunsets. Stacks of library books, trying new recipes and cooking together, sleeping in.

We moved to California.  Flying West, as we crossed three time zones, and found ourselves over mountains, and then mountains and palm trees… so strange.  Is this real?  Do I really live here?  Are those _avocados_ growing on that tree?

Cessation of anxiety.  I was really mostly anxiety-free in Red Bay, which is unusual. Usually, when I am on vacation, or away from my home or routine, I feel guilty about leaving my jobs and responsibilities, and the unfamiliar landscape manifests in random anxieties at night.  This year, happily, I had a few days where I was (appropriately because of work responsibilities) stressed, but slept every night.

When I moved to NYC, I was deeply homesick, and horribly panicked. I suffered from panic attacks daily and nightly, couldn’t sleep, and became really brittle and sick.  I’ve been trying to be patient with myself with this move, to listen to my body and allow lots of time for “processing.”  So far, so good.  We are settled into our beautifully painted apartment, I’ve been sleeping through every night, and feeling occasional spurts of (natural, I think) nervousness tied to genuine excitement.

For all of this, I have been immensely grateful. I half-joked to someone in a letter yesterday that I hope God doesn’t get tired of us saying “thank you.” I’m like some kind of gratitude wind-up toy— walking about looking at hot pink trees and grapefruit, through the lovely village, around campus, finding lizards and bookstores, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” a dozen times a day.

In the Bible, there’s a whole entire book of lamentations. If one has grievances or pains to bring to God, there are myriad models for crying out.  Think about Job!  Think about all the saints, in their times of pain– even Jesus Christ gives us a model for “talking back” to God.  There are praise Psalms, but it feels like when I am happy and grateful, there’s no artful way to keep repeating myself.  I’m just happy and grateful. Luckily for me, I think I don’t have to be artful for God.

I should ask my friends if there are certain songs they play, or videos they watch, when they are feeling all is well with the world.  I need a gratitude/excitement/eagerness mix tape!

Orientation.  This is actually the first orientation to a new school program I’ve done properly. For my first experience as an undergrad, I came too late for orientation, straight from hospital, and missed all of that information. (Didn’t turn out well, either– I lacked a lot of resources that I never did find for myself.)  For my second go-round in undergrad, I started mid-year.  For my first time in grad school, I was sick with anxiety and tears, and sometimes couldn’t leave my room– so I missed some of the offerings.  This time, I went to every single thing.  Finally!  Even though I know a lot, I found it remarkable the things I didn’t know. I marvelat the resources availed to me.

Peace.  So, on the first day of orientation, I was noticing that I was feeling both excited and a little trepidation. I was listening, being patient with myself. And a package arrived for me from my Dominican spiritual mentor. One item in the package: a little terra-cotta heart with the word “peace” hand-stamped into the surface. Also included: the liturgy for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, which included a litany of women witnesses, and a celebration of “voices that challenge.”  Also: a litany of peace “as we journey,” including this prayer:

“God of peace, you are the center of our lives, a strong refuge in the whirlwind of living. When our hearts are anxious, worried, or fearful, bring your calm and serenity to us. Remind us often that we can come, resting in the dwelling place of your love, and be at peace.”

I like the idea that I am taking place (and adding to!) a “whirlwind” of living… but that I don’t have to remain there when it becomes too much.

This image, a photograph of a statue, appears on the front page of the liturgy. The Dominicans describe it, “Mary has been bent, huddled, distraught at the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Then she hears her name spoken, and turns, looking upward to Jesus standing behind her.”

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Mary of Magdala

This weekend, Mary Magdalen was on my mind. My Dominican community celebrated her ministry– she is recognized as the first preacher, and apostle to the apostles–with liturgy and written reflections over three days, a triduum.  Here is the reflection I wrote for the community:

They didn’t believe her. She’d run, out of breath and mind spinning. I imagine she flung open the door, grabbed their hands, called for all of them to come. She certainly didn’t rehearse what she was going to say, or plot how best to convince them, or find texts to underscore her point—the message Mary carried was immediate and, to her mind, clear.

When I first considered Mary’s role as preacher, I thought about her message—the news she rushed to share, the intensity with which she must have carried and delivered it.

When I returned to the texts, I was struck by how her words aren’t believed by the other apostles. In Mark, it says, “But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” In Luke, an apostle says, “We heard from our women friends that he is alive, but that is crazy and we could not believe it.”

It must be a terrible thing to be greeted with disbelief. I can’t imagine what she might have felt, the frustration or confusion—after all they’d been through together, they doubt her word now?

It makes me angry on her behalf. I want to stomp my foot and say to the other disciples, “Listen! How many times are you going to get this wrong?”

And then I hear the question for myself. How many times do I miss God’s word, or doubt God’s message, or forget in my daily life the wild reality of God’s presence?

I don’t like change. I like the routines and known things about my life. Even good news can feel like stress sometimes, especially if it brings change. Am I spinning my chrysalis too small and too tight if I keep my spiritual life closed, relying only on what I’ve experienced and accepted so far?

If I met Mary on the road today, luminous and full of big, big news, would I open my hands and heart to her life-changing message, or would I doubt and turn away from everything she offers?  If I profess to believe in the ongoing life-changing message of Christ in the world, how can I situate my heart to receive, again and again, the Gospel?

On one hand, we are committed to proclaiming the Truth, to sharing and spreading the Gospel. We do not preach in a vacuum, though—we are also all listeners, and receivers of testament and witness that can affirm our lives, give salve to our hearts, and rock our worlds from complacent patterns.

Today, as I work to connect with Mary of Magdala, I pray that God will keep me courageous enough to listen, hopeful enough to receive Truth even if it shatters my expectations and reroutes me spiritually.  I am reminded through Mary’s witness that God so frequently works in ways we did not imagine, and speaks in voices that aren’t always what we expect. I pray that when God gives me strength to preach, God also gives me the willingness to truly hear.

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Photo by Tasayu Tasnaphun

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.” –Helen Keller

Sometimes, we feel the shatter.  Oh, the breaking, the sudden sharp sound, the numb eye-widening.  Faith can be hard to access… in such times, I know I go into “me, me, what am I going to do?” a self focus, a collapsing of a telescope in.

I am stronger when I remember I am not alone.  Actually, I have never been alone.

How many times will I have to learn this lesson to remember it for real?  God, help me remember the strength that I forget, and help me to cast out to my community when it seems all I have is sherds in my hands, sherds that make no sense.

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Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
~ Plato

Of course, this is so much easier to remember when I am in a good mood, and when everything is going my way.  So many times, I am getting on a crowded train, and no one is “moving in,” and I have to both get in and get in fast enough for those behind me. Sometimes I say, “Can you please move in?” with an edge to my voice. Occasionally, if no one is moving, I will say, “Okay then, please let me pass by, there are others behind me.”

I feel so angry when this happens. I resent everyone taking up space around me, the young men sitting with their legs spread wide, taking up extra seat room, the people with backpacks on, the person with iPod turned up so loud everyone can hear it. I get so mad! I think very mean thoughts.

If I’m already sitting, I am happy to tuck my bookbag and fiddle under the seat, happy to scooch over and make room, happy even to get up and let another person sit. I feel happy to be part of this crowd on the train, and magnanimous.

Plato’s quote hit me really hard.  I know from teaching that even the worst, and even the quietest students have baggage I cannot imagine. I try to be aware of this, and be gentle when possible, and present and attentive always. It’s harder with strangers. It’s harder when I’m tired, when I’ve been working all day and on my way to my second or third job, carrying something uncomfortable, ankle throbbing.

And I’m mildly embarrassed to list all of those minor aches and discomforts that might somehow justify my selfish mindset.

If I wrote this quote on my hand tomorrow, and spent the rest of the day reminding myself with every human encounter, how would my movement through the world change?

I also wonder if I would have more kind self-thoughts, if had kinder thoughts for those around me. Does part of my impatient internal dialogue relate to the harsh expectations and impatience I have for myself?

I will try, for at least tomorrow, to keep in mind this:

Everyone around me is struggling in all kinds of ways, large and small, seen and unseen.

Whether I think of it as being patient with myself, or being patient with my brothers and sisters on this path… it bears reminding that my God is a God of great Mercy, and very endless Patience.  Perhaps I will find my way more easily in my daily life if I keep attuned to this.

 

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