Posts Tagged ‘thankful’


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.


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.



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.


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.


Read Full Post »


A 22 hour train ride is no small thing. You have to prepare for it—I purchased peanut butter, crackers, chocolate, three bottles of water, and magazines. I made sure my phone (with music and books) was charged, as was my Nook.

I tried to help everyone else prepare. I said, “The train station will be crazy, crowded, noisy, entire families, no room, hot. We might have to wait for hours. We will try to stay together on the train. Use the toilet a lot early in the trip, because it will get filthier as the hours roll by.”

And even so, even in a group of good-hearted, relatively seasoned travelers, most of us committed to the environment, or animals, or teaching, or human rights (ie, we’re not a bunch of Scrooges), we get cranky. And the hotter it is, the faster we get unhappy.

I’ll speak for myself.

The third class AC cars have compartments, with six beds; three bunks on each side. When you’re with a group of friends or classmates, it’s pretty fun. You can watch a movie, or listen to music, play cards, share food.

For this trip, from Delhi to Jalgaon, we were unable to get tickets all together. In my compartment, there were four of us. In the neighboring compartment, there were only two students from our group.

So of course, I get it into my head that when the final two strangers arrive to our compartment, we should ask them to switch with the two students next door, and then six of us can be together.

When they—a woman and her middle-school aged daughter—arrived, she did not want to switch. I had Sushil, a colleague, ask her in three different ways.

I was so irritated! What did it matter to her? She had two beds, either way. She didn’t know anyone, what difference did it make whether she was with us, or with four others next door. She was ruining my whole plan for a great 22 hours.

I fumed. I occasionally stared at her over my Nook, wondering what her problem was. I told myself that we deserved to be all together. I even wondered if she would move if we gave her money.

I know; awful. How quickly I become selfish (despite all the Jain lectures on Self!) when I don’t get my way.

Of course, we eventually start talking to the woman and her daughter. She holds a PhD in geology, and teachers. Her daughter’s English is very good. We swap Indian fashion magazines. I put on my Hindi-learning tapes, and they laugh, correcting me as I try to say, “Please listen. Do you understand English? I am American.”

If you’ve ever heard me try to speak in another language, you might know that I tend to get really loud, and gesticulate even harder than usual, to make you understand what I’m saying. As if to make up for my mispronunciation. The geology professor laughed and said, “Not so much personality. A little less. Be more quiet.” We were roaring with laughter at her encouraging me to be quieter in my Hindi.


Today we went to a new school, grades 1 through 4 (adding a grade each year since its founding) funded by a local Jain. It was fantastic. Another warm, caring environment, filled with art, color, and adults who care for the children.

Today was the first day back from a three week holiday; to welcome the students back, the teachers had lined every single hallway floor with flowers. Here are some facts we learned from the director:

All of the students come from the slums surrounding Jalgaon. Everything is fully funded. The school day is all day, to provide two meals and because most of the parents—if they have work—need to work all day.

They have more applications than they have open spots; they try to take the most destitute. They visit the homes and interview parents in order to determine who can come.

Usually, siblings do not attend—because each family benefits so much from having a student there (and who will learn English, and prepare for college), they try to spread that around to as many families as possible. They make exceptions: there is a girl currently enrolled with a brother at home. Their parents are both HIV positive. Next year, when he is old enough, he will also come to school.

They believe that each child is his/her own person, and that teachers shouldn’t force children to be people they are not. They believe emotional nourishment is important, especially for these children.

They weigh the students as part of taking care of their health. After a three week holiday like the one that has passed, most of the children have lost weight; there is not enough food at home.

The children sang for us (“The Wheels on the Bus,” and “The 12 Days of Christmas”), and so we sang for them (“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” because it has hand motions, and we ended in three part harmony and a big, slow, flourishy finish.)

They children had made us bookmarks. They lined up, so each child could take a turn giving each of us a bookmark. As one handed my bookmark to me, he said, “Welcome, Madame,” and then kissed his hand, touched my feet, and touched his heart, before running shyly to the back of the line.

Who am I, to be treated so well? Just 24 hours ago, I was thinking dark thoughts on the train, acting spoiled and thinking only of myself. Even though I’ve been treated with care and luxury every single place I’ve been in this country.

Life long learning, right? God willing, I have many years to soften my heart, to think the best before I think the worst of someone—even when I’m uncomfortable. Especially when I’m uncomfortable.

We visited a classroom with little crescent tables. They can be joined together to make a circle; all the students sit on the floor. Also near the floor, around the room, are chalkboards hung at five-year-olds’ level. The director said, “The teacher scribbles on the big board, we’ve found the children like to scribble on the little boards.”

I thought about the long journey, in the rain and mud today, from wherever their houses are. How did their smocks stay so clean? How did their hair stay so neat? Did they like dance more, or science? Do they teach their baby siblings at home the counting and letter songs they learn at school?

One of the paradoxes of going to places like schools in India is that even though I am supposed to be the honored guest, I actually receive so much. They are so happy we are there, they give us gifts and mango juice. And really, I should be giving something in return for all I receive.

What do we do with such gratitude? How can I hold on to it, and let it seep into my actions and intentions? Like, I want to be the thick (the thickets, really expensive, heavy-pressed) watercolor paper, and let these experiences saturate me, soak the ridges and pockets of my-self.

Read Full Post »


Mary in splendor, in Hagia Sophia.

Mother Mary was all over this trip. Surprising that after having lived in places like the Bronx, where she is also frequently found—from shrine to garment to tattoo—that I would feel so close to her at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

When I was little, going to a missionary Baptist church out in the country, Mary didn’t come up very frequently, although I often got to play her in Christmas pageants. (Having blonde hair and blue eyes that matched her robes seemed prerequisite.) Even with nativity sets, I was always interested in the tiny baby, and in rearranging the stable crowd in various scenes. Mary wasn’t doing much in those little ceramic sets—kneeling, eyes cast down.

At one point in upper elementary school, I undertook to read the entire Bible, cover to cover. There’s not much Mary in there, either, actually. I loved the book of Esther, which read like a novel, and liked the idea of Eunice and Lois, early members of the church important enough to have names. Besides her magnificat, Mary doesn’t say anything. And Jesus himself is kind of rude to her in the wedding story, acting annoyed that she pressed him into service. And, to be honest, growing up trying to be a good girl, Mary just seemed meek and mild, the opposite kind of woman that a subscriber to Sassy magazine would aspire to be.


Tradition says that after Jesus, as he was dying, charged his dear friend John with caring for Mary, John took her to Ephesus, where she lived out her days. This shrine is on the site of where her house is supposed to have been.

When I did my master’s in Byzantine hagiography, I finally started thinking about Mary in earnest. I saw images of her as God-bearer, as a near-warrior lady, holding the safety of humanity underneath her skirt, looking with intensity at Christ as she begs forgiveness on our behalf. My professor said, of her downcast eyes, “In these [Byzantine] images, she’s not looking down because she’s meek. She’s looking down because she is nobility, and they don’t look commoners in the eye.”

One of the things that’s so exhilarating about Istanbul is that beautiful images are grander than you can imagine, and jaw-dropping beauty is around every corner. I frequently found my eyes filling with tears. I would turn a corner, look up, and see an image of the theotokos, completely not expecting it, and stunned into staring.

Or I’d see something out of the corner of my eye, look up, and see Christ as king, splendid and solemn, staring at me from centuries ago—gold still shining in the dim cave light.


Outside the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, where pilgrims tie prayers on scraps of paper.

I couldn’t help by pray, and be awed (which is also a kind of prayer, I think), along the way.

CS Lewis defined the word “numinous” like this:

“Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind.

It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous.

Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.”

(When I looked up this story to get the details right for this post, I also found the following quote from Shakespeare that gets at “numinous,” “Under it my genius is rebuked.”)

So I would be walking around Istanbul, thinking about pistachios and how I used to always misspell “Constantinople,” (despite that master’s degree) and would suddenly find the hairs on my neck rising as I see another fresco, another mosaic, another image that stops my voice.

It’s hard to write about the numinous. When you have an experience—in a stand of sugar maple trees, at a child’s baptism, at the bed of a dying grandparent, in a chapel in Prague—that brings goosebumps, tears, a whoosh of energy in the gut and heart, and it feels like all of creation meaning…

It’s like the old writing class edict “show, don’t tell” falls apart. How can I show you? I can only tell you that I was greedy for images of holy and gold, and was blessed with more than I could handle.


Votives lit by pilgrims at Mary’s house.

Read Full Post »

Oh, October

I love October. My birthday month, cooler weather, and (at least in the Midwest), blue, blue skies. I have many memories of riding my bike and noticing those skies, and feeling they were particular to my month.

I keep thinking it’s the first week of October, because we’ve been so busy, but really, we’re nearly half-way through. I also keep thinking it’s the beginning of the school semester, but really, I’ve already turned in multiple assignments. I had a great visit with my mom and sister, and I have a new nephew. The world is full.

In the past two weeks, our school had an Ahimsa Day, in which I was in a play/dramatic sharing, and participated in a panel on forgiveness–I was representing the Christian perspective. (Tough to do, in one single-spaced page!) I published my brief remarks here.

Last weekend, I was the on-site events coordinator for a dialogue conference. Big ideas, great professors and leaders, me running around making sure catering, welcoming, materials…everything in order. Thank goodness for Matt, who takes some of my load with grace and aplomb. Dinner parties and a bridal shower thrown in for good measure.

I’m also finishing work on a project for the Jains, it looks like I’ll be going back to India this summer, and helping shepherd the Journal into more growth. AAR next month, plus Thanksgiving/Christmas with family.  We’re re-booting the community garden.

So many good things. I find myself in a lot of “spontaneous thankful” prayers– just walking around thanking God for everything I have. As fall comes on, though, I am thinking about Advent, and the need to be a little more intentional about my prayer life.

Other notes: I’ve started reading the Game of Thrones series. Not great, but pretty good. I started using an app on my iPhone that tracks how deeply you are asleep, and only starts the alarm when you’re coming up out of a deep sleep. You have to keep the phone on the bed near you. It’s working, and kind of cool to see my “sleep statistics” every morning–the graph of when I was in deep sleep, dreaming, and when I was not. I’ve been driving more, with the manual transmission; it’s okay. Serving as a Teaching Assistant is going well, as is my work in the Writing Center. We’ve had Remy for a year, and I can’t imagine our life without him.

We housesit for two friends and they came back from a mini-vacation with so many beach stones. While we caught up, I played with the stones, organizing them by color and shape. Pleasing.

Some amazing Chihuly glass I saw while visiting my sister. Oh, the color. Oh, the abundance.

Cool old bricks in “Bricktown,” in Oklahoma City. I love how each one is stamped with the maker’s name. Again, pleasing texture.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

prayer beads, hanging in a temple

I’ve been groped, I passed out from the heat, and my passport was either lost or stolen. Seven weeks in a very different county, perhaps it’s to be expected that there would be some bumpier bits. The only thing that tinges of regret is that I think I know better, and I hate having made a misstep.

We, men and women, get looks and stares wherever we go. Our orientation materials reminded us women especially not to be too effusive with language and gesture, to not touch or stand too close to members of the opposite sex—even within our own group, as it can give a wrong impression. We noticed that in the Bollywood movie we saw, there was never even any kissing—despite the fact that it was a love story and featured at least one wedding. In contrast, in Spiderman, the two stars—ostensibly high school students–kiss passionately and the female protagonist—a teenager—dresses provocatively. If the only images you have of Western women are from Hollywood, your ideas about what we do and are will be flawed.

In Jaipur, five of us went up to the Monkey Temple. We had taken a tuk-tuk there, but it was kind of a remote place, and it was harder to get a tuk-tuk back. Four young men offered to give us a ride in their car, back down to the main part of town, where we could get a tuk-tuk to campus. We were in a large group, we had a guy with us, and it was the middle of the day—I certainly felt safe, and no alarm bells rang.

However, nine people in a compact car are a tight squeeze. We tried to be smart about how we sat—I sat in the front passenger seat with another girl in my lap, the two other women sat the same way against one of the rear doors, and we had the guy in our group sit between them and the other two men. Using the men in our group as “buffers” in transport and in restaurants and movies is one of our common strategies.

At a certain point in the ride down the mountain, I noticed the man behind me had his hand on my arm. It was a bumpy ride, and we were really crammed in, so I figured he was trying to adjust how he was sitting. He ended up groping my breast for a few moments, while asking me if he could, “Just one time.” I said, loudly, “No, no times. No times at all.” Only the girl in my lap realized something was awry, but couldn’t tell what—the backseat was too full of conversation and noise for anyone to notice anything. After he was finished, the man said, “I’m sorry,” as if that helped.


Our first day off in Varanasi was during the hottest part of the week. Undeteterred, Ashleigh, Nelda, Andrew, and Matthew and I headed for Asi Ghat, with plans to walk along the river north, to see the ghats and perhaps end up at the famed Brown Bread Bakery. Oh, it was hot. Not a cloud in the gray, heavy sky and the sun shining directly on us as we climbed the stone and concrete steps, up and down along the water.

I don’t actually remember passing out. I remember feeling faint, and realizing I probably needed a drink of water, and asking Ashleigh for some of her water. Next thing I know, I’m seated in an alley. Ashleigh had poured water down the back of my shirt and Matt had wet his handkerchief with cold water and put it on my head. Kids, cows, and merchants were talking to my classmates about me and making recommendations about what they should do.

I was quite out of it; even when we got to the restaurant I didn’t feel sure of anything. All I knew was that I was very cold, and very tired. I borrowed Nelda’s scarf to wrap around me and wished they would let me lie down and sleep. We ordered food, but in the meantime Ashleigh made me eat salt, and drink water, and eat sugar, and drink water. Bread came that I did not want, apparently I was a bit of a brat to Ashleigh about eating it—I was so cold and weary! She told me she knew it was hard, and that I was doing a good job, and just to have a bite.

I drank a mango lassi, and kept drinking all the water they kept giving me, and after an hour or so finally felt hungry. After I ate, and after another hour, I realized it was actually quite hot out and was no longer cold. All was well that ended well. But I’ve been even more obsessive of late about water, and embarrassingly grateful whenever I have two full containers and as much as I want or need. I’m also embarrassingly grateful for friends and community.


Finally, my passport. It was a perfect storm of little things that added up. I rode a bicycle rickshaw home alone. The driver was confused—or feigned confusion—about how far we had to come, and wanted more than we had agreed upon. This has occasionally happened—our compound is pretty far away from the town center, and at the far end of the BHU campus. It’s hard to explain to drivers, and they want to take us as a fare even if they don’t understand where we’re going.

I had just been to the ATM, which had given me Rs 1000 bills. I didn’t want the driver to see my entire wallet full of money. When we got to the compound gate, there was already the awkwardness that he wanted more money than we had agreed upon, it was starting to get dark, and it began to rain.

Usually, all of my money is in a small felt wallet. This wallet, with my passport, IDs, and debit cards, goes in a small Vera Bradley purse that I can wear cross-body. I took the wallet out of the purse, and thought I put the purse in my red backpack, which was sitting on the rickshaw seat. I turned my back to the driver, both to guard the money in my wallet, and so that I could see how much money I was taking out in the light from the gate.

Then, it was raining. I wanted to be done with the transaction and get away from the driver and back inside. I kept my wallet in my hand, zipped up my red backpack (thinking my purse was inside), and came into the classroom. As soon as I sat down, I unzipped the backpack to put the wallet back into my purse…and my purse was gone.

I said, “My purse. My passport. I left it…” Ashleigh and I ran back outside, Matt got on his bike to try and chase the driver down. Ashleigh and I walked up and down the road in the rain, using her phone as a flashlight, looking and hoping to see if the purse had just fallen off the rickshaw. Matt rode all the way back to the café, and back, in the rain, looking for a driver who looked like mine. To no avail.

It’s not the worst thing that could happen in a foreign country. It’s not even the end of the world. Ashleigh and the librarian and the campus driver/chef took me to the police station, which was itself a strange and interesting experience. I had to fill out a report and they gave me a stamped report to take with me to the Embassy. I went with Nelda and one of the workers today to see the Station Master at the Varanasi Rail Station, to ensure that I had permission to ride without an ID. (The written note I took with me, under instruction from one of the professors, asked that he “…please kindly confirm [my] berth and oblige…under Discretionary Quota.”) I feel like I’ve been in some dream concocted by Kafka and Wes Anderson. Tomorrow I ride the train back down to Delhi, to visit the Embassy. Apparently, if all goes well, I’ll have another passport (delivered via diplomatic pouch) in seven to nine days…in time to fly home with Matt and still go to Canada. Fingers crossed and hopeful prayers.


And yet, I still am kind of in love with this city. The tuk-tuk we rode in today, on the way to the train station, was crowded with seven passengers. Unbelievably crowded. Three adults in the front, three in the back, and one little boy standing between someone’s legs in the back seat. (I gave him a sheet of stickers: turtles, snakes, and frogs.)

The driver played Bollywood music on the stereo as we careened around the city, passing stands selling fruit, flowers, bathroom sinks, statues, umbrellas, garland, fried food, shoes, backpacks, plastic piping, posters featuring the Periodic tables, bangles, tobacco and beedee, chickens…

No one is unoccupied. Digging, selling, slicing, begging, carrying a child or younger sibling, carrying bricks or bowls of dirt or greenery, balancing family members on a bike or motorcycle, bartering, arranging…

Schoolkids fill the streets: some ride on “school bus tuk-tuks,” which are tuk-tuks with a flat truck bed on the back, surrounded by fencing and covered with a tin roof. Like a very small parade float. The small children, all in uniform, sit in rows on two boards, their backpacks hanging from hooks on the back of the truck. Older kids ride bikes—one, two, or three kids to a bike—or occasionally on motorcycles with a mom or dad. I love to see mothers, in saris and helmets, driving their kids around, an older kid on the back and a smaller one in front.

The smells are as endless as the colors: jasmine, cow and dog and human feces, rain water, frying savory food and frying sweet food, spices, tea, body odor and sweat, incense. I still get goosebumps of thrill and joy when I realize where I am, and how lucky I am to see what I see.

I return to the compound, dusty and worn from the train station. It’s going to rain again. The mangoes are over for the season. The dogs greet me, I see little kids running down the brick pathway, and hear bells ringing close by. Later, dozens and dozens of fireflies will light the trees as they escape the rain, and people I don’t know will once again cook me dinner, for which I will be grateful. My friends will make me laugh, and we will probably end up singing, as we do many nights. I will sleep deeply in the monsoon-cooled air. My love is coming to meet me here later this week, and I really don’t want for a single thing.

Read Full Post »

My grandmother. Last month, I traveled from LA to Chicago to San Fran to St. Louis to Western Mass., culminating in Thanksgiving. Whirlwind! One of the highlights in St. Louis was meeting my cousin’s dear baby and going through a box of old photos of our family.

Here is our grandmother, whose parents came from Scandinavia, in Montana in the 1930s. I had never seen this photo and nearly gasped when we found it. She looks like my grandmother as I remember her, but she is so young, so pretty, so possible. This is before she met my grandfather, married young, and went to England with one child to bear another (my mother) before reaching the age of 20. Before coming back to the farm in Southern Illinois–her husband’s family land–and raising four children in a farmhouse with no hot water until 1977, the year I was born. She also raised, in part, me and my cousins. When I was in high school, she was frying chicken for a local restaurant and driving a school bus. She had gone to beauty school at some point; my mother still has some of her hair equipment.

Also, recently, I spent a day at the Getty with my best friend,

was treated to an amazing Korean meal by a classmate,

experimented with lotus root and other delicacies from the amazing Land of Plenty cookbook for…

an amazing Christmas dinner with my husband. Vintage Advent candle-holder from Etsy, napkins lovingly hand-made in Haiti, plates from a pottery shop in Shelbourne Falls, Mass., chargers from our wedding pattern china.

Today is the shortest day of the year. Doesn’t Daisy in The Great Gatsby say she’s always trying to notice the longest day of the year, and never can? What a sad thing, her youth, her longing for summer warmth and shine (and those shirts!), and always missing it all.

I don’t know what it says about me that I’m noticing the shortest day of the year, but I’m surrounded by Christmas lights, red wine, and plenty of carols and cards. Christmas lights don’t twinkle as well in the light, so I’m thinking that this is the best night of the year to shine.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »