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Posts Tagged ‘summer’

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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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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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Western mass

I always forget how much I love my friends.  I’m not a big telephone person, and get into routines of work, and writing, and work, where I forget that we can hop on a train, or bus, or rent a car, and be with people we love.

Last week, we went up to Boston for a day and night, to hang out with Jodut.  Oh, there’s a whole post I need to write about the wedding-cake-making endeavor. Last time I was there, I was so busy making her practice cake, that I didn’t really get to visit.  I wanted to just putter with her.  Matt made his home-made enchiladas for dinner, we gossiped and caught up and watched _An Education_, and then slept in. Matt then made his home-made everything bagels, and then we walked to Harvard and around and about the river, and saw Pooh’s entrance (photo soon) and wendered our way home.

Actually, we wendered our way to Western MA, to stay with my brother- and sister-in-law, and niece for a few days. While there, Tom and his girlfriend came up to hang out with us.  We visited the Book Mill, I got sunburnt on the first real sunny day of the year, and we marveled at tasty food, remembering old students, and future plans.

I re-fell in love with my niece, Matt and I talked into each night with Andrew and Lynette, and we grilled out twice in a row.  Why are red peppers on the grill so, so delicious?  I was eating them like candy.

I love walking around at no pace at all, with good people, and hearing three conversations at once. I love revisiting old and favorite connections, and sharing things. “You have to read this!” “Here, _taste_ this!” “We have to go there again!”

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This week, I’m doing my drama camp for neighborhood kids at the church where I teach Sunday school.  Last year, I described it in the “death of a pigeon” post.

Today was the first day, and I had clean forgotten how tiring it is to teach/lead children. They have so much energy!  They talk constantly!  They have so many clever questions that deserve and call for thoughtful responses!  They’re quicker than I am, there are more of them than me, and they always go right to the quick of the matter.

Today, we started our papier-mache masks, worked on acting out or displaying lots and lots of different emotions, talked about two Bible stories (Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers), considered how the various characters thought and felt, play-acted them out several times (in costume), made lunch for each other, played outside, learned a new song, and illustrated different emotional scenes.

Everyone at the church is surprised I don’t either make all the lunches, or have a volunteer make them.  But these kiddos are six and seven years old– they can wash grapes, cut bananas, stack cookies (they do it with such care!), make sandwiches, and set the table.  They like it– they like taking the sandwich orders, and working in the “big” church kitchen, and counting how many of everything they need.  Yes, it takes forever– I could do it much faster while distracting them with an activity, but I like them to prepare food for one another.  For me, preparing meals and sitting down to eat with one another is one of the big, _big_ traditions in Christianity.

Tomorrow, hopefully the masks will be dry enough for us to add noses and cut the eyes out, and then paint.  I was talking about adding noses, and Julliana said, “Oh, yeah. So we can smell.”

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Summer into fall

Last weekend definitely felt like the last day of summer.  After Sunday school, the parish had a picnic at a beautiful home of one of the congregation.  Ancient hydrangea bushed bowed low to the ground, full of their blooms.  A peach tree stood alone in endless trails of morning glory and moonflowers.  The kids splashed in the pool, barbeque smoke filled the humid air, and I had a last plate of potato and side salads. (No ramen noodle vegetable salad come wintertime, when butternut squashes and polenta will come into my palate again.) 

 

Yesterday, we went to a circus in the park, and it was cool enough that I wore tights and a jacket.  Leaves are starting to crunch underfoot, and the air feels like the inside of an apple. Everything smells more delicious, and I start to feel the strange poignancy that comes with fall. Is this a biological impulse, this poignancy?  Does part of our bones remember a cave, a hut inside a hill, dried apples, one potato, and no fresh milk through a long winter?

I’ve been looking at the photos I took all summer long.  I’m surprised how bright (purple!  gray with yellow!  red!) the colors are. Looking outside even now, in the middle of the day, there is a yellow cast on the red brick, the green trees.  I think if I awakened out of a deep, fairy tale sleep, I would know immediately that it was nearly October, by the light alone.

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Ahh, the lazy summer Saturdays, with time to peruse recipes and the farmers’ market…  Can you tell I’m on summer break, and successfully finished Greek?

Saturday, we began gathering goodies for our first party in our new apartment, a housewarming on Tuesday.  I also found some fresh corn, lettuce, bunches of fresh herbs, and squash blossoms. I’d recently been noticing squash blossoms at various markets, and had seen some recipes for stuffing and frying them.  Basically, they are flowers.  You remove the stamen and pistils, and then stuff them with any tasty mixture.  I used yogurt cheese and pesto.  After preparing a simple batter, you dip each in the batter and fry them.  

I found the stamen and pistils strangely sexual.  Having focused on the Victorians for some of my graduate work, I knew that in the past, young ladies were not allowed to sketch or discuss the sexual organs of flowers.  I found that silly, until yesterday, when I peeled back the delicate petals and found my first stamen poking through, upright and confident.  I might have blushed.  All of the blossoms but two were male.  

How odd to be treating flower blossoms like a food, stuffing the blossoms and twisting the orange petals closed.  They were delicious. 

I found a beetle in my head of lettuce as I washed it tonight, in preparation for lunches this week.  It’s reassuring, in a way, to have such fresh food in the most urban of environments.  Currently, the herbs are all in vases on the dining table, in water and waiting to be cut, minced, and pureed on Tuesday.

Recently, I’ve been making entire lunches out of fresh corn and sliced tomatoes, with a side of yogurt cheese and balsamic.  I try to sit down and actually eat, to focus on the luxury of fresh, organic food, and to notice these seasonal flavors.

Coriander, parsley, and lemon basil

 

Did you know there’s one strand of silk for every kernel of corn in an ear?

 

Squash blossoms, pre-stuffing.

 

Stuffed with cheese and pesto, and fried.

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Lazy days

With summer, I’ve been able to finally catch my breath and do some…puttering.

Puttering is aimlessness, little projects that please no one else but me, time to write letters or dust, wandering morning walks.  Puttering can include cooking or shopping, but with no time frame.  Puttering certainly involves perusing used books, re-potting plants, re-framing photographs, daydreaming, watching a movie in the middle of the day with no guilt.  (The no guilt part is huge and breath-giving for me.)

In the last week or so, I’ve watched _China Syndrome_ and _Elephant_ in the middle of the day.  I’ve found new routes to walk in the morning, wild-green places that don’t feel like New York City.  I’ve studied at my own pace, and gotten books one at a time from the library to devour on the train.

I am so grateful for this kind of time, and I hope that I never take it for granted.  This morning, we woke up and went to the farmers’ market first thing–we got fresh bread and eggs (and red ripe tomatoes!) and came home to immediately make french toast.

Later today, I’ll make cookies and lemon cupcakes for a friend’s party, and study some Greek, and maybe compose a letter to someone.  That’s all.

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