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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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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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Photo by Vipal.
 
We spotted the ocean at the head of the trail
Where are we going? So far away.
Somebody told me, that this is the place.
Where everything’s better, and everything’s safe.
 
Half an hour later
We’d packed up our things
Said, we’d send letters
and all of those little things.
And they knew we were lying, but they smiled just the same,
Seemed they’d already forgotten we’d came. 
 
For most of the summers of my childhood and teenaged years, I went to summer camp. Even now, sometimes on a summer early evening, I recall exactly the schedule: Sunday afternoon, swim test. Sunday night, s’mores. I often dream of being there, hiking from the lakefront to the dining hall, doing dishes in the steamy kitchen [as a teenager, earning my free stay.]

Many of my happiest childhood memories took place at camp: I felt loved, I felt smart and good, I had a routine that I craved. On the night of my seventeenth birthday, I saw seventeen shooting stars. I sang and learned to swim and build fires and sleep in a quiet forest.

When I got older, and then became a counselor, the coolest people I met were other counselors. Sometimes they came from England, or New Zealand. Often they were college girls from the big college town, the cultural capital of my region of the state. They listened to R.E.M. (my own #1 band), to crazy bands I’d never heard of, wore cool tee-shirts and had traveled.

The summer of this song, by Toad the Wet Sprocket, I had my own car, and had this album, and was a counselor. I listened to the entire album– it’s one of those great albums where nearly every song is good, and they sound “right” in order. It was intense, golden-hued, nostalgic: just like my feeling of being at camp.

One Friday, after the kids were gone, and we counselors were packing up our tent (for the weekend break, and then to move into another campsite for the next week), a fellow counselor backed her car into the campsite, popped her hatchback, and put this tap on her tape player, car battery fueling the music for us to pack by.

We were silent as we packed, and at age 17, it seemed so darn appropriate. “Packing our things.” “Said we’d write letters.” “Forgotten we’d came.” The sun was setting, I imagined I could see or sense the lake through the trees, and I already felt sad and bittersweet about getting older. I’d be going away to college in the fall. My parents were getting a divorce, unbeknownst to me at that moment. Things were changing.

Honestly, for me, camp was a place where I always did feel better, and where I was always safe. Now, listening to the song, I can so easily conjure my platform tent, the green plates we used in the dining hall, the sweaty grit of having cooked over a campfire, the spookiness of the woods at night, the gorgeous glimmering of the lake in late afternoon.

I felt old that summer, strangely.  I had never kissed anyone, had not yet experienced depression, had never been on an airplane.

We don’t even have pictures,
Just memories to hold,
that grow sweeter each season,
as we slowly grow old.

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Me looking into my abandoned high school.

Part 1:

“He wakes up in the morning.
Does his teeth, bite to eat and he’s rolling
Never changes a thing.
The week ends, the week begins.

She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking,
But we never say a thing.
And these crimes between us grow deeper.”

When I was a senior in high school, something felt a bit different in the music that was suddenly available. It seems like before that year, you listened to country music, you listened to pop radio (including things like Madonna and Nelson) or you maybe listened to things like Poison.  R.E.M. was my favorite band, I was hugely happy when “Losing My Religion,” got them some hits and brought them into the mainstream.  But senior year, one classmate recommended Live to me, it seemed like MTV was playing more types of music, and Justin E. made me a tape of the album _Under the Table and Dreaming_.  When he gave it to me, he said, “I put them in a different order than how they came, but this is they way I think it should be.”

I remember junior year, grunge came in. This was 1994, late for the rest of the nation. I started wearing my grandpa’s worn out flannel shirts (much to my grandma’s chagrin.) After I went to college at University of Illinois, I heard Dave Matthews all the time.  Eventually, a roommate had a CD of _Under the Table and Dreaming_ and I discovered that I also preferred Justin’s ordering of the songs.

“Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time.
Lights down, you up and die.”

I love this verse of “Ants Marching.” I love how high his voice goes. I can sing along with him, but when he drops down (too low for me), I have to make up a harmony.  It sounds pretty, but looking at the words now, I see that they’re sad.

“Goes to visit his mommy
She feeds him well, his concerns
He forgets them.
And remembers being small
Playing under the table and dreaming…

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die.”

In my high school, you didn’t have to eat on campus for lunch. Before you or close friends had a car, you’d walk across the square to the Dairy Queen. Or, you’d walk up to C&K (video) and buy candy and chips. With a car, though, you’d have time to go to the Huck’s for chicken or tater logs, or maybe the other gas station. And I think Huck’s eventually had pizza and sub sandwiches?  I can remember being in the back seat of someone’s car at lunch, this song on the tape player, singing along, the same harmony I sing now, with the wind coming in through the open windows, and feeling so young, so strong and beautiful and possible.

“Driving along this highway
All these cars and up on the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged,
No time to exchange when
All the little ants are marching.
Red and black antennae waving.
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way,
Candyman tempting the thoughts of a
Sweet tooth tortured by weight loss programs
cutting the corners, there’s a
Loose end, loose end, cut cut
On the fence, try not to offend.
Cut cut, cut cut.”

Justin was a big fan of the Raiders and Dave Letterman. I had a serious crush on him in junior high. I wonder where he first heard Dave Matthews Band. Maybe on Dave Letterman? I’ll bet I could still re-order the playlist on this album; that’s how many times I listened to the tape.

PS: Just having seen the video again, I see that it’s shot in NYC. That’s kind of strange; I don’t think 1995 me imagined I would ever even visit here..

 

View inside our old accounting classroom.

Part 2:

Janet had cable TV, and for some reason I didn’t. At least not then– I can remember times when my parents did. R.E.M. had just released _Monster_; again, this is a 1995 song. MTV was making a big deal about when they debuted videos from the album.  When the video for “Bang and Blame” came on for the first time in North America, Janet was watching, on the phone with me. She described every moment.

“If you could see yourself now, baby
It’s not my fault
You used to be so in control
You’re going to roll right over this one
Just roll me over, let me go
You’re laying blame
Take this as no, no, no

You bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,
Blame, blame, blame
You bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,
It’s not my thing so let it go.”

Here is my memory of Janet describing those first few moments of the video: “Okay, so it’s black and white. There’s a microphone. Michael Stipe is walking up to the microphone. He’s wearing a striped shirt. He’s… um, he’s hitting the microphone. He looks angry. Um… they’re in an empty house, camera going from room to room. No one’s there. A bedroom, unmade bed. Oh, a dog.  Back to Michael, hitting the microphone, waving his arms around. He’s walking away. He’s coming back.”

I had a _massive_ crush on Michael Stipe. I thought he was the hottest thing ever. I was dying to see this video, to see what he was wearing, how he was dancing, to see the story to go along with the song.  Janet talked throughout the video, trying to tell me every single detail.

It’s not a hugely great song. It goes well with the entire album; I know all the words, I like singing along to it, I like the video. I don’t think it would ever make it on a top twenty list of favorite songs, though.  Whenever I hear it, though, I immediately visualize the start of the video, and remember that there was a time in my life when I spent hours each day on the phone with Janet.

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Photo by s.alt

The piano chords begin, my heart gets a lump in its throat. I stop whatever I’m doing, and take a long, deep sigh.

“Sister Winter,” by Sufjan Stevens, is a song that makes me sad in the most delicious way. Think of how you might feel when gazing at a pieta in slanted afternoon light, in seeing an abandoned stone fence that has been overgrown by encroaching land, by finding an old diary that you wrote when a child. Wistful, nostalgic, forgetful, near-regretful.

Fall is beautiful, and winter is beautiful, but there is something about the dying, and the waiting, isn’t there?

“Oh my friends I’ve
Begun to worry right
Where I should be grateful
I should be satisfied.”

His voice is certainly mournful here. I immediately hear/see the lonesome black stretch of empty branches, that purple bruised sky before winter sunset. I see the stubble of old corn stalks in frozen fields.  Definitely in the emptiness of winter, it’s easy to be unsatisfied.

“But my heart is
Returned to sister winter
But my heart is
As cold as ice.

Oh my thoughts I
Return to summer time
When I kissed your ankle
I kissed you through the night.”

I guess this song, at least the beginning, is full of regret. I don’t necessarily feel regret when I listen to it, I just hear melancholy, and maybe a yearning for… for friendship, for the space to feel grateful and joyful.

“Oh my heart I
Would clap and dance in place
With my friends I have so
Much pleasure to embrace.”

Here, oh here. Here I get goosebumps, here I feel hope. I cannot convey how pretty this song is, how lovely this verse is. In my life, my friends have been my estate–they have saved me time and again, and shown me my own self. I am inspired every day by their voices, and have had so much joy in their presence. Oh, my heart, indeed.

But, this is a sad song.  It continues:

“But my heart is
Returned to sister winter
But my heart is
As cold as ice

Oh my thoughts I
Return to summer time
When I kissed your ankle
I kissed you through the night

All my gifts I gave everything to you
Your strange imagination
You threw it all away

Now my heart is
Returned to sister winter
Now my heart is
As cold as ice

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise

All my friends, I’ve
Returned to sister winter
All my friends, I
Apologise, apologise.”

For this narrator, it is that he _would_ clap and embrace.  Grammatical future tense.  Longing, not having.

“And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you all the best
And my friends, I’ve
Returned to wish you a Happy Christmas

To wish you a Happy Christmas
To wish you a Happy Christmas
To wish you a Happy Christmas.”

And yet, Christmas songs are so often about hope. And maybe this is more specifically an Advent song… he somehow travels through winter, through that place of apology, and returns. He returns to his friends, full of wishes.

I guess maybe it’s the future tense that makes it sad?  That not knowing that a chance to return will come?  By the end of song, the piano has become less spare and more fulfilling, and the sadness is tempered with hope and relief.  Which, really is Christmas: winter tempered with hope and relief.

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I have a song that I listen to when I need to be revved up.  When I am feeling down, or not very smart, or not smart enough. When I’m applying for grad school, applying for grants, deciding to move, or feeling small.

There’s a drum roll, the cymbals clash, and then the bass starts up: I smile immediately, every time. I start to get excited.

“Where I come from isn’t all that great
My automobile is a piece of crap
My fashion sense is a little whack
And my friends are just as screwy as me.”

In fact, I have listened to this song while finishing, sealing, and mailing every grad school app I’ve ever completed (all four rounds). I have listened to it in celebration when I learned I was going to California.

“I didn’t go to boarding schools
Preppy girls never looked at me
Why should they I ain’t nobody
Got nothing in my pocket.”

“Take that, Harvard!” I holler to the mailbox.  “Take that, BU!” I shout as I shimmy and stomp around my apartment.

I sing harmony during the chorus:

“Beverly Hills – That’s where I want to be!
Living in Beverly Hills…
Beverly Hills – Rolling like a celebrity!
Living in Beverly Hills…

Look at all those movie stars
They’re all so beautiful and clean
When the housemaids scrub the floors
They get the spaces in between.”

I actually picture the esSex House during this verse, and Tom, Eric, and Jodut. I picture my sunroom bedroom, and to-do lists on the wall, and practice GRE math problems on the white board in the kitchen. I picture myself, triumphing intellectually, shaking my fist at everyone who ever thought he was above me in grad school, rocking an academic conference.

The best part is coming up. I always shout it.

“I wanna live a life like that
I wanna be just like a king
Take my picture by the pool
Cause I’m the next big thing!”

“I’M THE NEXT BIG THING.”

“Beverly Hills,” by Weezer. Self esteem in a thrumping, happy, rollicking tune. I always feel happy as soon as it starts, and capable of anything by the time it’s finished.

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image from toothpastefordinner.com

“Feliz Navidad.”  Honestly.

Poor Matt, with all of his Christmas mixes. The song is on several. I’ve been with him for a few Christmases, now, and never mentioned the burning dislike I feel for this song until this year.  He was shocked!  How could I hate a Christmas song?  And why had I never told him?

It’s lucky for me that the song I like least only comes around for two months a year. I sort of forget about it the rest of the time.  I think I really hate it because it always, always sounds the same. It’s not like there are multiple arrangements for it, people ranging from the Smashing Pumpkins to Mary Chapin Carpenter covering it, slowing it down, adding mandolin, _something_.

I dislike the sudden, manic, “I want to wish you a merry Christmas” repeated. I dislike the repetitive strumming. I tense up as soon as the song starts. To me, it feels like being trapped in a towering dollar store Christmas aisle… surrounded by things I usually love (glitter, decorations, ribbon) but suddenly sharp and dusty.

I see from Wikipedia that not only is the song one of the most downloaded Christmas songs in the US and Canada, it also has, in fact, been covered by folks like Moby and Celine Dion.  Dear Matt, Maybe try the disco version on a Christmas mix this year?

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