The Silence the Pope Brings

The pope came to Philadelphia. A full assortment of feelings were expressed by the Philadelphians I spoke with–a few were delighted, most were inconvenienced. A friend of mine, closer to the gathering on the Parkway, said her block socialized the whole weekend, taking advantage of the car-less streets. In my neck of the woods, across town from the devout, it was near total silence, with the exception of helicopters overhead. While I envied the faithful the comforts of faith, I treasured the contemplative silence in the city, making room for reflection and rest, the pope’s gift to me.

One deserted neighborhood street.

Empty

New York: Love and a Whiff of Mortality

When I visit Manhattan, I feel seized by that New York excitement, a state of being which resembles my hyper teenage self. (I know there are songs written about this, and the reason there are songs is because it’s real: That NY state of mind.) The great mix of people and the sounds and the smells, and the pace, and the way I feel each street due to the light and the architecture, and how ornate and ever changing the interior design flavor of the moment. Right now, on 9th Ave, there is a return to “rustic authenticity.” I have a choice: upscale, or downscale. I can eat cheap pastries on a stoop, or tapas in a heated indoor winter garden. I make the city mine by engaging it with my personal blend of whimsy and interest, and (unavoidably) spending power.

I first came to live in NYC when I was 21. New York has become a personal measurement tool, like those childhood height marks on doors. I go back and I measure myself to the city: How is my energy? Who is with me and why? What am I attracted to? What do I wish to see again? What do I wish to see anew?

DarthColbertThis last visit, we went to see the Colbert Report on Monday and the Daily Show on Tuesday. The warm-up comedian made a point of reminding the audience that we were splurging with free tickets. Both shows were great, with interesting similarities and style variances in the handling of the audience. My partner and I also walked around, ate good sushi, and caught by chance the loveliness-drenched end of The Marriage of Figaro, simulcast on the Lincoln Center Plaza. My spirit was soaring to the music. It had to be Mozart. Out of all the wonders, that will probably be the moment that sticks with me: The dream of visiting Lincoln Center with my sweetheart, which has preoccupied me since I first saw Cher in Moonstruck. Going to see La Boheme was sweepingly romantic in the movie and stumbling onto Figaro was beautiful in real life, more than 25 years after the movie came out. Funny how movies and New York City can conspire to make life dreamlike. (This dream of life which whose end is unknown, but probably unlike The Marriage of Figaro.)

Figaro

Return to Fallingwater

FWFallsI went back to Fallingwater, as I had promised myself, but this time I took my sweetie. I had the same reaction as the first time, I was moved by all of its beauty–a feeling of profound wellbeing settled in. Fallingwater feels like home. Home. Looking through Merriam Webster’s definitions, the snippets that resonate with me are about being “at home”: “relaxed and comfortable: at ease,” “in harmony with the surroundings,” and “on familiar ground.” This is actually a big deal for me–over the course of my family’s migrations through space and time, all my childhood places, all the spaces where I felt “at home,” have been shed. I cannot go back. I cannot go home. Imagine my surprise, delight and relief, stumbling into Fallingwater and feeling like I have found my place in the world, one more time. Could Frank Lloyd Wright hear my future yearning across the decades? (Yes, this notion is a touch pompous, but emotionally very real.)

FWLivingOr perhaps my yearning is a common one. A yearning for a well-organized, well thought-out space–a space in communion with nature, a space that lets you live among the trees and streams, with seamless movement between the inside and the outside of the home. In some sense, Fallingwater reminds me of my french grandmother Nicole who recently passed. Fallingwater was designed with an appreciation for its setting, with a love of the woods. Fallingwater creates a state of rest. It’s majestic, but it invites relaxation. It would be a great space for a nap. There is both a great amount of light and real privacy. I love the colors, the materials, the shape, the spaces at Fallingwater.

FWHearthI think what continues to surprise me about this house is that it is so special and beautiful both as viewed from the outside, and as viewed from the inside. I knew I loved the exterior long before my first visit, but I did not expect to be so enchanted with its interior. For that, I owe a great debt to the Kauffman family, for having the foresight to gift the home intact to the Conservancy–as a visitor, I can experience the house as a home–with all its art, furnishings and fabrics. All the period books. I can easily imagine spending a whole day in the house. And my honey was there too. What more could I ask for?

FWSweeties

Frank Lloyd Wright: Beginnings

In keeping with my new-found passion (to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright [FLW] buildings as I can), I went to Oak Park a week ago to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio. I found the experience both anticlimactic and bracing.

As an artist preoccupied with words, languages, and story telling, I often take nourishment from other forms of art–looking for particular narratives or themes, or the emotional resonance of the work, or the intellectual energy of specific choices. In my life, I have been greatly moved by painting, poetry, theater, architecture, landscapes, dance, textiles, and pottery. I’m very receptive to beauty, movement, light and joy, and also melancholy.  Thus my favorite seasons are Spring and Fall (could I call them renewal and maturity?).

I very much enjoyed my afternoon in Oak Park because it encouraged me. In museums, we typically encounter artists at the height of their powers, when they have worked out their concepts and executed their master works. Retrospectives allow some insight into the creative process over time, but the works selected remain the most polished and impressive. Seeing Mr. Wright’s early accomplishments reminded me that the person who would later author the amazing FallingWater had his own slow creative evolution: Refining ideas, tuning concepts, using an iterative approach to his work. Mr. Wright seems to have had sophisticated taste from an early age, and to have collaborated with master craftsmen who excelled in their own right. I believe that this dialogue between artists invigorated his work–it certainly invigorates mine. But I was reminded that even great geniuses have moderately sized successes in the beginning. The homes I saw were lovely and impressive, but they were first steps in a very long journey. Stamina and dedication over time are key ingredients–it’s helpful to remember these aspects for my own creative journey.  OakPStudioHere are visitors on a tour of his studio, which is next to his first home. I enjoyed visiting the studio more than the home because it was a working space, but also a marketing space, so he had made it clever–with modular stations that could be moved around–and a bit grand, with lots of natural light, high ceilings and low hanging ceiling pieces that were anchored by an interesting pulley system.

Having been so impressed by the work of his late career, it was instructive to see work from the beginning of his career and consider the through-lines, the preoccupations and themes, that withstood time.

Some themes (according to me):

  1. Light versus dark–where light is allowed and where light is limited in his spaces.
  2. Containment versus expansion (this the tour guides emphasize as compression and release)–narrow hallways leading into large rooms or outdoor spaces.
  3. Privacy versus view–setting high windows in busy neighborhoods that only show trees and sky as a view.
  4. Geometry and order–lots of repeating themes and patterns.
  5. Spaces within spaces–creating little rooms within larger rooms–like the high-backed dining room chairs he preferred, creating a center of intimacy during dinner. Or delineating sub-spaces within larger rooms, so there is a reading/library corner, and a music corner within a larger living room.
  6. The primacy of the living spaces over the bedrooms, kitchen, or bathroom spaces.
  7. Finding the right furniture for the space and the theme of the space. There are story-telling murals on the walls of his Oak Park home, which influence the rest of the furniture, colors and patterns in the rooms.
  8. A dislike for clutter. Working after an era with more elaborate decorative patterns and fabrics–FLW’s style is relatively sparse and geometrical.
  9. Fitting homes into their landscapes, creating a dialogue between man and nature–Organic Architecture is the term Mr. Wright coined, with FallingWater as the preeminent rendering of this philosophy.

Mr. Wright belonged to a Unitarian Church in Oak Park, which was a relatively new suburb to Chicago in the 1890s.  He built many homes for others in his congregation–there are about 30 FLW homes in the area, and there are about 20 on the walking tour near his studio.FLWFirstMayaYou can see the rapid evolution of his taste through his early houses. This grand home was at a time when he was experimenting with Mayan decorative themes.

FLWFirstJapanThis private home illustrates his interest in Japanese temple architecture.

FLWFirstPrairieThis private home is considered the first of his prairie-style homes–which feel to me Japanese influenced, with an added concern for the privacy of the family, protecting them from onlookers. (Strangely prescient considering the number of visitors to Oak Park circling the streets scavenging for his legacy.)

Visiting FLW’s home helped me understand why his later designs have such limited and oddly placed windows. When Mr. Wright moved to Oak Park, it was mostly plains and dirt roads, with very few houses. However, over his ten years in the neighborhood, the lots started filling up with new houses, and he soon had a next door neighbor, uncomfortably close to his dining room windows. He filled in his original windows, and installed high windows in his dining room, so he would still have light and privacy. This experience must have been formative because privacy for homeowners really influenced his architectural choices going forward even for homes with many acres of land in rural areas like the Kentuck Knob house.

I can’t wait to discover more of his mid-career designs like Taliesin in Wisconsin.

OakPInsignia

Art & Nourishment: Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s been an exquisite banquet of stress in graduate student land of late, as I wrap up the eighth and final consecutive semester of my part-time MSW program. (Starting in September 2011, I’ve had classes in Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall and now Spring. The experience, drawn out, exhausting, was chosen by me, and I am glad to reach the terminus of this particular leg and start off on new pursuits in new directions.) Enough with the whining.

And now, a refreshing serving of good news. I had a rather vivifying, soul-searing encounter with the work of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) two weekends ago.

FallingwaterVisiting FallingWater in Mill Run, PA, did great soothing and inspiring things for my soul, my mind and my heart. When those aspects of me are basking in the comforting presence of beauty and vision, my body tends to do rather well also.

Art! Great art. It’s practical magic (for me).

The snippets of stories about FLW reveal a complicated egomaniac with impeccable taste and a pretty amazing imagination and understanding of light, space, materials, human function, the need for beauty, functional design, community, and communion with nature. Neat.

I also visited Kentuck Knob, so I had two homes, designed two decades apart by my new friend FLW, to give me a sense of his trajectory as an architect and designer. There are bones to pick with some of his choices. He was a man’s man in a man’s world. His family rooms and incorporation of outdoor spaces are awesome, but he (seriously) neglected bedrooms as spaces (his are quite small), but more gravely, his bathrooms and kitchens are really tiny–my interpretation is that he did not take that aspect of the human experience into much consideration. In FallingWater, the whole house is oriented to the outdoors, and this is clear in his design, every room has a large terrace–you are constantly being ushered out and closer to the stream and cliffs.

I had wanted for years to see FallingWater. When I first learned of its existence, it sounded like an improbable miracle. How could a building be ushered into being out of my dream? Maybe wanting to live directly over a stream in the woods is a secret ancestral dream, a common hidden human notion? In any case, the concept resonated and I was terribly excited to go there in person and measure my immense hope to the physical space.

I knew I would respond to the experience, but I did not expect to be so moved. His intent is everywhere. His taste is pretty much flawless. I love his fabrics, his furniture. The whole world should live like this.

FallingWater is right out of the future and it was designed in the 1930s.

And then there’s the very homey Kentuck Knob, which had an interesting coziness and warm darkness to it. It has an understated front and a proud prow of a living room, jutting out into the hill below.

kentuckKnobThat was two weeks ago, a bit before Spring sprang into its fullness, and now, before the tender baby green leaves peek out, we are showered in an outrageous fullness of flowers. I thank thee Cherry Blossoms–cheerful hopefulness embodied.

SpringFlowers

The Thought of India

Even though it was six months ago, I still get asked “How was India?” The question is so huge, it leaves me either rambling or wordless. The scope of the question might be, “What are your thoughts on being a woman?” Or perhaps, “Tell me about your childhood?” (Childhood I could tackle, that’s a narrative I have shared and shaped again and again throughout my life.)

I keep hoping my seven weeks in India, or the country in my head, will finally become manageable, just an epic travel experience. But the flashes of color and feeling that rise up in my mind when I hear the word India aren’t so easily packaged for external consumption.

So here’s what I’ve got, just a few more reflections that I hadn’t yet articulated, or that have crystallized further.

1. I have never left India. It has been inscribed within me. My emotional relationship with what I know of the country reminds me of my first love. There were many beautiful and many terrifying moments. I know this is all cliche, but cliche is sometimes the best way to express something universal: All that is left are my memories, and the way my senses and perspective were transmogrified. I resemble my prior self, but I am someone else.

2. Intellectual and emotional humility. There are many forms of wisdom, many of which do not issue from formal learning.

3. It’s okay not to know where I am going. I have hungered for states of certainty for a long time. India obliged me to become a bit more flexible. I may not trust the road, or the driver, but I can trust that the journey will maintain my interest, and charmingly, most outcomes will be harmless or at least manageable (and some enchanting). Near helplessness is a very uncomfortable state to inhabit for seven weeks, of course (if necessary) I had a privileged kind of relief at my disposal–my wallet.

4. The state of understanding another being is not to be taken for granted. Neither the being, nor the understanding. There are many ways of being understood and many ways of being misunderstood. These are in constant flux, even within a lasting relationship. Triangulating meanings across languages and cultures exposes the many gaps between us. It also exposes how amazing each moment of rapprochement really is.

5. Resilience, resourcefulness and desperation are all incestuous cousins. They are awe-inspiring and they distasteful. Making use of very little can be really moving. It’s also awful to witness because it proposes a reality that cannot be argued with.

6. Whatever can be done with a human body is being done. Yay. Boo.

“Yay. Boo. Yay.” would be a fitting (highly reductive) three-word answer to everything I witnessed: 7. My moral self was never at rest. I was constantly trying to assess, understand and evaluate both my experience and the experiences of those who were around me. I was trying to give it value(s). For example, as a westerner, beautiful things could be bought, but the buying and the beauty were both imbedded with multiple other meanings–colonialism, US imperialism, privileges of race and class, my astounding amount of education and its basic uselessness in this context, the smugness of my wallet and its credit card contents, plain commercial lust, my responsibilities as a tourist, my responsibilities as a human being towards others. What each of my gestures, commercial or non-commercial, said about my identity and my intentions, about the countries I come from, and how I perceived the country I was visiting. What each gesture from Indians also represented as a comment on our interaction.

I have never felt more morally sketchy. Being back in the U.S. is so much more comfortable. Here I can nurture an illusion of living more or less as a “good” person. In India, walking down the street, I stepped over bodies that might have been (but I dearly hoped weren’t) dead.  In the U.S., I have a slightly better sense of the boundaries of what I can and should or might do in any given circumstance, and what the basic order of things is supposed to look like among my countrymen… I step over fewer literal bodies.

8. There is hope. We will each have to find our own.

I Went to France

What can I report on France which I have just visited for the first time? (I was raised there until I was 11, I am fluent, and I am half french. In my hundreds of weeks spent there with family, I have never toured the countryside–the expatriate lifestyle is full of obligations to aging grandparents and rickety parental units.)

As I traveled around the countryside for five days–La Rochelle, Nantes, Carnac, St. Malo, Mont St. Michel, Cancale–the french met my expectations. They are notable for their subdued delight in the essential bodily pleasures. Note the forlorn way the distinguished Maitre D’, short on staff, will deliver the world’s freshest oysters to the table. It is like eating the sea’s heart. The oysters are cold, they are salty, they are the children of a thousand waves.

It’s hard for me to see France without my childhood inserting itself. There’s also the France in my head, corrupted by years of living in America–the hodgepodge of satiric representations: Pepe Le Pew, Christopher Walken playing the Continental on Saturday Night Live, Freedom Fries, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (Thank you Simpsons).

We didn’t have an itinerary until the day we left to pick up our rental car. I made one decision–no chateaux! (Too many palaces and fortresses visited in India in June.)

However, the France I saw was delightful in providing varied backgrounds for fantastic daydreams. We went to visit Les Machines de L’ile in Nantes and it was like being in a Hollywood movie, except the special effects weren’t digitized, they were real. And the children were quiet and well behaved (relatively speaking.) We went because we’d heard that we could ride a giant wooden mechanical elephant. And we did. The elephant sprays water out of its trunk on those who get too close to its path. It’s a whimsical, stunning, gigantic thing. Elephant

We also saw a giant mechanical heron carrying four people “fly” on a suspended track. It was wonderful to see adult imagination look so much like child’s play.

Then we went to Carnac which has several thousand menhirs standing in long lines–they are called The Alignments, and there are several different clusters. The picture below is of The Alignments of Le Menec.

CarnacThey are more than 5000 years old. I got excited reading about them, and then I saw them. The overwhelming first impression is pretty low key: yup, a bunch of stones. But then we took the tour which explained the amount of work involved, the potential meaning of the stones, and the way trade worked around 3500 B.C. I started imagining a Celtic wold full of chieftains undertaking big projects to mark prosperity and territory. I imagined the way the stones might have looked originally, one side raw, one side smooth, one gleaming white side, the underbelly yanked from the rock.

The next day we drove to St. Malo which is a walled city of stone built on the riches accumulated by French Corsairs (pirates sanctioned by the King). We walked the ramparts at sunset. I imagined being the wife of a corsair, waiting for the ship to come back. StMaloEach day we ate seafood, crepes, varied items drenched in sea-salt caramel. We asked for and ate a lot of butter on bread, because the butter in France is utterly delicious, full of flavor, with an amount of salt that perfectly complements bread.

For our first rainy day, we headed to Mont St. Michel which I had visited once before and which I remembered for its stunning beauty and dramatic vistas.

StMichelEven though it was a gray day, it was still lovely. For those who love photography, the winding spiral path to the top offers a new perspective every few feet. Once we reached the Abbey at the top, the challenge got more daunting, with sweeping views and dramatic angles. We visited twice, once at the end of the day, and again at night. The nighttime visit was more whimsical, with projected light shows and lone candlelight musicians in different rooms. The harp, flute, and viola we heard each sounded both spooky and ethereal. These were holy spaces, so I pondered the experience of silence and beauty for the monks and nuns who had crossed these halls over the centuries.

On our last day, we took a culinary excursion to Cancale, home of the amazing oysters we had been served in St. Malo.

CancaleIt was a lovely last stop before we returned to Paris.

Re-Entry

photo(1)Everybody talks about the culture shock of going to India, but no one I spoke to did justice to the psychic shock of returning home to the United States. Everything is simultaneously familiar and alien. Right now, when a CVS invisibly opens the door as I approach it, I feel like I’m entering a magical cave of delight. I expect sprites and fairy dust. But it’s only candy, crackers and beauty products inside.

After the magic wears off, I think about the nature of a society where even the doors don’t need to be pushed open.

Which brings me to the big thing I noticed at the Zurich airport, sharing a gate with college kids coming back from a trip to Africa organized by their church: Americans have the luckiest body language on earth. The at-home-in-the-world vibe I get when I see Americans amble around–that’s the most shocking thing of all. The kind of luck and plenty that makes that body language possible is astounding. Is my walk so entitled and confident? Is this what people see when they see me? The uncomplicated joy in being, the expectation of great things–these are all conveyed to me in the simplest movements, like a young American man reaching into his pocket.

I had no idea. The only reason I have an idea now is that I have walked streets where most I walk past are scraping a bare minimum of a livelihood together. They are not starving. That is the good news.

Back in the U.S., my privilege has many aspects. Since I’ve returned, sometimes my privilege is the delight of ever-present climate control; sometimes it’s the perfect taste and texture of ketchup. Or eating bare vegetables (no curry), fresh from a city garden. Every day, it’s the marvel of flushing used toilet paper away: Such a little thing, which provides such freedom–I never have to think about my bodily waste or the huge systems of infrastructure and public health that I benefit from every time I yank on the flush handle.

Many times in my life, I’ve been taught about the invisibility of privilege to the privileged. I get it now (a little). I get how lucky my society is. I get how lucky I am. And I have a sense of what’s left to do. How much work is ahead.

The Possibility of Change

Sometimes I worry that it’s very easy to become cynical, especially since I care about “trying to do some good.” As I become a social worker, I don’t want to take myself seriously, but I do want to be sincerely hopeful–to believe that things can and do change at the personal, community, and society levels if enough strategic energy is applied.

Before my internship with Durbar/Usha, I liked this hopeful attitude, and I wanted to embrace it whole-heartedly, but I was also hungry for inspiring stories. I wanted to know change was possible. I wanted some case studies for hope.

My six weeks in Kolkata working with and meeting with the women of Durbar and Usha have been nothing short of inspiring. I have witnessed a community system that works for the greater benefit of its members, transforming women’s sense of agency, solidarity, how they manage their health choices, and creating financial empowerment, and helping them plan for their families’ future. Each piece in the puzzle–collective, clinics, bank, children’s school–strengthens the others. It was amazing to listen to and see a community use its wisdom and power to take care of itself in such effective ways. In about twenty years, what began as a health initiative has become a powerful social and professional institution with impressive political, medical and financial impacts. One of the aspects I admire most about Durbar is its interest in the welfare of other marginalized communities, like domestic workers. It’s an amazing organization.

My hope system has been immunized. This can only help me be a better collaborator with friends, clients and communities.  My role going forward is to continuously remember what I witnessed to know what is possible for each of us and for our communities.

Usha

Research Team with Usha’s Secretary.

Awake, Dreaming the Taj Mahal

DreamTajThe Taj is a waking dream. It is a building on the shores of a river, in a specific town, but I think it functions better as an apparition and a dream. I couldn’t really enter the Taj (technically, yes, I visited its obscure heart, but it didn’t help me make sense of the experience), I could only see and relate to the Taj from a distance, from the outside. There are so many pictures of the Taj Mahal, it was steeped in my mind long before I went in person. Up close, it no longer made sense: I lost all perspective, all sense of scale; it swallowed me in its vastness. To encompass its beauty is to keep it far away, inapproachable, in that sense it is a great flirt, you want to come closer, but can’t. The real payoff is in the longing for the Taj, glimpsing it from afar. Maybe that’s why I particularly loved seeing the Taj Mahal from the vantage point of Agra’s Red Fort—the Taj beams beautifully in the distance, changing color with the light.

SideTajI don’t want to discourage Taj visitors. Going in person to see the Taj Mahal first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day because it keeps the night’s dreams alive. Seeing the Taj Mahal shapes the day into a silent dreaming space.  I had a delectable nap after my visit. I slept contented, filled with beauty and grand plans.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Details and Weaknesses

My written french is abysmal, so when I wrote to my french grandma that Kolkata was pretty interesting, she chided me that I needed to try harder to convey the experience. The fact is that it’s very hard to explain what makes the city so captivating, so exhausting, so worthwhile, so magical, so frustrating, and so bittersweet. My time in India is complicated, layered meanings for each banal, charming and/or brutal experience. The details of the every day are impossible to recount, there’s just too much happening, too much observed, too much forgotten: There’s the way the taxi swerves to evade the brightly colored trucks, the nonchalant dogs in the middle of the road, the irrational confidence of the pedestrians putting their palms out to stop cars, the god statues and pictures and flowers in the altars found on the dashboards of the taxis and auto rickshaws, the altars on the side of the street, the small dishes made of leaves used to eat chickpea curries at roadside stalls.

Everyday I experience how internally inconsistent I am, all the tensions between wanting to be open to others and wanting to preserve myself. This is in parallel to the multiple contradictions of my external environments–are strangers being kind, are they in need, are they ignoring me or swindling me, or reaching out in friendship? Will my toes hit another brick in the uneven sidewalk in that tiny moment I am distracted? I navigate small pleasures and small displeasures through always changing, chaotic, stop and start, tempos. The pace is a rush, the pace is a crawl: the moment will stretch and I will feel old, but then soon it will be evening and I will be young again. Time cannot be tracked. Was it morning yesterday? I’m a bit dizzy with the array of surging and ebbing flows: the lifeforms, signs of their passing, signs of their decay (my own).

I’ve had frequent bouts of feeling suddenly overwhelmed by smells. The smells aren’t offensive, just strong: today it was the smell of baking cookies. Previous days, it’s been the smell of curries, beauty products, garbage, or flowers. Any of these might suddenly make me feel out of control, and just as quickly, if I remove myself, five minutes later I’m utterly fine. It’s the unpredictability that frightens me.

Equally mysterious are my range of reactions to the heat. Yesterday, I was immobile. I was wedded to my air conditioning. The thought of full sun made me fearful.  Today, in the sun, I was almost fine. I didn’t become drenched in sweat until evening came and I had been sitting still for hours. Sometimes there is nothing left of me. I am a shell crawling to the comforts of a cold shower.  Sometimes I am abundant, and resilient. It’s my repertory of weaknesses, blooming in Kolkata. The city abounds. I cannot keep up. I can only be, a little bit at a time, and then a lot, quickly. And then I sleep. Blessed sleep before the web of life absorbs me again in its colors.

Faces of Eve

The experience of conducting collaborative community-based research in the red light Sonagachi district in Kolkata India is transforming me. It’s hard to say exactly what is happening to my mental and emotional frameworks (I think that insight will emerge over time), but I can maybe report on what I hope is happening.

DurbarOne of the great gifts of being in India is the freedom it gives me to be patient, and to be accepting, and to let conversations, halting moments, and imperfections occur without becoming frustrated. For example, today we conducted two of our interviews in a narrow alley, in the rain, with onlookers, dogs, and passers by. I was amazed at the interviewees’ generosity with their time and stories. (Sometimes, when I do get frustrated, I remind myself, I am in India, and this is not my terrain, and I need to let it all unfold as it chooses to. My will is not important: Holding this internal dialogue has been freeing in the utmost). I dearly hope that, when I return to the U.S., I can maintain this same dispassionate curiosity as to the unfolding of my practice, my agency’s work, and my client’s lives. I’m not meaning I will be un-invested, I’m meaning that I want to be clear about my objectives and my responsibilities, and to honor those without forcing a particular agenda. I want to retain my current spirit of exploration, generosity towards others and naivete.

What I really hope is happening is that any temptation to stereotype any population is totally dead within me.

I am meeting the women of Sonagachi in their homes, at their collective Durbar, and in the streets. I am meeting their children, their loves, their madams, and their elders. I am drinking their tea. I am sitting with them and listening for glimpses of their stories and choices. The experience is both profoundly moving and totally mundane. Their stories are my stories too (maybe not in every particular, but the threads of our concerns comes from the same cloth).  More than anything, my experience working with the women of Sonagachi highlights how interwoven our lives are with our families, how we all seek to make the most of our careers, and how we try to be good partners and nourish relationships around us. If I tell you about my life, I will tell you how it has been filled with the joys of love and relationships; the pride of doing my work well; and how maybe one day I will speak of my children and look forward to my offspring’s marriages and educational accomplishments. My setbacks have had to do with health concerns, financial worries, and family responsibilities. I’ve dreamt of owning a bit of land and building a home, or starting a new business. All this and more is echoed by the women of Sonagachi. They are my family. We share Eve’s face(s).

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Reality

Cups

Bhaads, the local tiny earthen tea cups for the strong Bengali tea.

I’ve been in Kolkata for two weeks. The amazement and excitement of first arrival has faded and I’m now faced with the day-to-day business of living in a crowded, busy city where I have some bearings, but am equally easily lost. The relentless scrutiny and the language barriers are no longer new, they are just two forms of ongoing pressure. We’re slowly learning a few Bengali phrases for greetings, trying to make halting connections with those around us. One thing I know is that I love the little red earthen cups, or bhaads, in which tea is served in Kolkata. I have never had such small cups of strong tea served so hot.

I am both homesick and totally committed to this trip/experience, which creates its own tensions. I miss my daily comforts; I miss my partner and friends; I miss salad, but I also love being opened up to new possibilities, watching a powerful collective women’s movement unfold (and the privilege of meeting its members), and trying to partner with the organization to assist it as best I can through research. So many different pressures, so many different wishes and desires–for example I’m balancing my research obligations, my homework obligations, my household and social obligations, my tourist inclinations, and my bodily and psychic requirements. It’s kind of unusual to be so torn and so engaged all the time. Maybe that’s what is so addictive about being abroad.

Nobody Knows (Decision making as crap shoot)

A recurring theme this weekend, as I struggle with minor health issues and a general feeling of being run down from the humid heat, is that no one knows what to do. We have a set of external guidelines, suggestions, common wisdom and personal opinions, but there’s no definitive knowing against which I can make decisions. Outcomes will vary: Is that just life, or is it India? Maybe I should start praying to the local gods for better health?

kaliTo illustrate my point: Everyone has mixed feelings about the anti-malaria pills we’re supposed to take (I’m having odd dreams). Some in my group are taking them, some have stopped, some may start after stopping. Despite medical advice, and after some googling, we’ve each formed our own  opinions on how to handle the need for this medication. I suppose all human decisions are equally personal — with some information seeking married to gut feeling, but I also note that without the comforts of my typical (home) compasses, I have become more random in my decision making. I remember what the nurse at the travel clinic said about stomach issues, but then I wonder when I consult with my peers about what’s truly appropriate. What level of discomfort should trigger prescription use?

Similarly, the U.S. state department has guidelines about avoiding crowds for safe travel, but crowds are where the action is. What do I consider each risk level to be, and what levels of risk do I choose to tolerate and why? (And can I avoid crowds in India?) These are big questions and they come up again and again. No answers here. I’m just amused by the range of adaptations to these common quandaries in myself.

We went to a street festival last night. Here’s a picture of two in our group making friends there.boys

India: Dream Continent. Kolkata: Dream City

Here’s one of my theories about travel: For every major city known around the world (think London, Hong Kong, New York, Cape Town, Kolkata), there is a dream version of the city which lives in our minds–a dream composed of impressions, movie clips, song lyrics, images, fleeting conversations and travel fantasies. Equally, certain (sub)continents are stamped with dreamed exoticism. For example India and the strange assortment of reactions news of my trip engendered in friends and family.

parkI do not know when I started wanting to visit India, but I remember telling a cab driver in Philadelphia that India would always be there for me–eventually my time would come. (This conversation took place 10 years ago.) But the feeling was stronger than that, I wanted to experience the India in my heart and mind. Was I really having a relationship with a country?

cowsNow that I am here, I feel close to Kolkata. I feel an affinity for the city’s abundant spirit, its in-your-face attitude, its generosity, its speed, it’s intensity. It’s a tropical New York. It is nothing like New York. I worry about my love for India. I wonder how self-serving this love is. Do I adore being “Other”? Being noticed? I think about how tourists use foreign spaces as fun-house mirrors for their egos.

greenburbsIs going to India a cliche? At least I’m not in an ashram. I am living in Kolkata, walking its sidewalks, taking its metro, eating its food, finding a tailor, navigating commercial interactions and human exchanges of all durations and intensities.

I think about the India stereotypes and how Kolkata does and does not fit my pre-arrival ideas. Yes, it’s abundantly dirty and polluted–water, streets, exhaust, the generic dusty grime that covers everything and gets in my ears. No, I haven’t been confronted by many beggars. Yes, it is an assault on the senses. No, the smells can be quite lovely. No, there are no wild monkeys. Yes, there are dogs everywhere, but mostly they nap. There are also a few cows. Yes, westerners stick out and are stared at. No, the people aren’t always friendly (but then I wouldn’t expect New Yorkers to be constantly friendly.) Is it safe? Yes, I think so. Do I feel comfortable walking alone? Sometimes, by daylight.

trashReal Kolkata is both more familiar, and less exotic than dream Kolkata, but it is also more mysterious beneath the commonplace surface. I am never sure what really happened, what was understood and what was not, after I have an exchange with a local. We meet on fields of stereotypes, each expecting the other to play a role, and then we try to become human to each other, to surprise, or control the interaction. As a privileged foreigner surrounded by real need, my “purpose” is to be ripped off, but to try to be reasonably ripped off. I don’t know enough yet to be able to bargain wisely, but I trust the knowledge will come in time.

busMy dream Kolkata has become my real Kolkata. It is more vibrant, more human, more complicated and more charming than I had hoped for.

Tropical, Political Clothing

For the next six weeks, I live in Kolkata. Not even in Junior High did I think so hard about what clothes I wear, how they fit my body, and what my appearance conveys about my identity, my values, and what interactions I am seeking out and hoping for.

The wearing of clothes in Kolkata is complicated territory for me. Indian women typically wear longer sleeves, longer shirts, longer pants and skirts, and scarves. Women cover up here, even in the heat. Occasionally I spy a woman who might have short sleeves on, but she will then cover up her shoulders with a scarf.

As a western woman, I am closely observed by men, women and children, and I might even say continuously judged (or so I suspect). I am conscious of the brands I wear, the electronic toys I possess (iPhones are rare), and how my shoes are different–and how each of these things implies lifelong privilege which I had never scrutinized. This week, I am newly aware of my shirt’s neckline, the degree to which my shoulders and my prominent bosom are covered. I am aware of the stares and how I represent a brand, the western woman.

For my internship, yesterday as we toured the Sonagachi red light district, I was wearing new pants, purchased in India, hoping they would be more heat adapted. Sitting in the sex worker’s health clinic talking with peer educators, the pants stuck to my thighs in the heat, and when I went to cross my legs as I sat on the floor, the pants ripped at the top of my thigh. My classmates swore that my long top covered the wardrobe malfunction, but I still felt quite self conscious and vulnerable as we walked through streets saturated with brothels, a curiosity for the population. It makes for a good cocktail story, and for layers of feeling in the moment.

I understand that there are two markers of sex workers in Kolkata–you can identify them at night because they wear western clothes and a lot of makeup. You might call it a theatrical performance, an impersonation.

The multiple ironies, including me trying to fit into Indian clothes so I send a message of modesty, are not lost upon me.

I ponder the challenges of functioning in a society where women’s modesty is always monitored–how that pressure must shapes lives. I look forward to returning to tank tops without worry back in Philadelphia. I also have new sympathy for those who will never blend into their environment, be it due to race or culture. Finally, I am grateful for the heat and these insights.

Time, Space, Heat, Color

My roommates and I decided (I think on our first day) that the space-time continuum needed to be altered to the space-time-heat continuum–a few hours in Kolkata bring home that point abundantly.  Heat changes the way your body experiences both space and time–they both lengthen. For example, what I’m convinced is a five minute walk in 40F weather is a 20 minute walk in 99F, and my experience of time in the sun feels much longer because it weighs on my body so much more. So while things are taking longer, and feeling hotter and more weighty, there are all the other assaults on the senses afforded by life in the city.

First and foremost: The Color. There is vibrant color everywhere. The paint merchants must be rich. The flowers are bright white jasmine or golden marigold, the saris come in every hue, the taxis are flashy yellow, the ad signs are of every color, and emerald greenery abounds. There are of course many smells, most both familiar and unrecognizable. There must be hundreds of different kinds of street food available, each with its own distinct odor.

P1060089As I walk, I go from smelling limes to smelling curries, to smelling jasmine, to smelling urine, to smelling human sweat, to smelling garbage to smelling car exhaust, to smelling jasmine or incense.  I smell the air expectantly, a little nervous about the next strong odor to come wafting by, but many more are pleasant than I expected.

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There are the sounds of Kolkata, mostly honking, but also banging and knocking from construction, the patter of feet on the streets, human conversation, not so finely tuned motors of all sizes and power. There is the whistle of the policeman occasionally guiding traffic. There is the constant beep of the ceremonial security screenings in the subway.

It’s like every major metropolitan conglomeration I’ve visited except it’s India. It flows and shifts, behaves and then swells into chaos and recedes into order very quickly. It’s this fluidity–saris, traffic, sudden shoves forward in the metro and prayers to many faced gods–that I will remember.

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Bouquets of Saris

In each train car in the Kolkata Metro, there is a section for Ladies where the women huddle together. On Saturday night, the train was too crowded and I could only really see faces and I marveled that even in this heat and humidity, the ladies wore their makeup and weren’t streaky blurs. I’m not wearing any makeup and my sweaty pink face is definitely a blurry damp blotch in every photo.

Today, we took the train around 7 on a Sunday night, which I assume is a semi-indecent time to be cavorting about the streets and trains in this society. The train cars were much emptier and thus I was able to enjoy the Ladies’ section and leisurely gaze at the marvelous details on the saris and jewelry of my fellow metro ladies. Sari next to sari, the women did not crush their dresses or sit hip to hip, they took the space their garb required. Such lovely colors and patterns and contrasts: a sky blue sari over a wine red top caught my eye.

Our modest evening plans were totally thwarted by an unexpected rain. At first it looked like a quick rain, but it turned out to be a 40 minute downpour, with thunder and lightning, the streets quickly flooding. We walked through ankle-deep water home. I’m glad I brought some plastic shoes, unfortunately these were not on my feet during the rain.

I’m getting accustomed to the different flavors of inquiring stares I meet whenever I am out and about: curious glances, mild distaste, intense probing… It’s all part of the Kolkata experience.

Kindness of Strangers Mode

It took me 36 hours, three planes, a train ride, and a taxi cab to get from Philadelphia to my apartment for the next six weeks in Kolkata, India. My checked suitcase and I made it together despite a tense 40 minute transfer window in Zurich where I was told United had pulled me off my corresponding Swiss Air flight. Thanks to the Swiss Air agent who put me back on my second plane. On a trip across three countries and four languages, surprises lurk at every turn.

The other thing that became apparent, as I dealt with authority figures in three airports, is that as a traveler I am irrevocably at the mercy of strangers all the time. This is particularly true in India where I have no local language skills.  English knowledge is unpredictable, and I often need second and third parties (strangers and kind bystanders) to step in and facilitate transactions/exchanges with officials at various security points, gates and payment centers.

Mumbai airport.

Mumbai airport.

I realize the human condition is inherently one of being at the mercy of strangers, I just wasn’t feeling it so acutely, so personally every minute. In India, I have few communication skills and therefore no recourse — if I annoy or frustrate people and they choose not to deal with me, I could be in trouble. Of course, everyone is a professional, and they do their job (kindly), and we are in public, so there’s a measure of expected outcomes, but I’m feeling quite vulnerable. One of the reasons I feel vulnerable is that I am a tall, broad American woman. I am big by U.S. standards and I am really big and visible in India–in some ways representing all the economic advantages of my society. I’m not only visible, I am economically desirable to vendors of services.  So far it seems most of public life in India– shops, street stalls, various services– is conducted by men, so I am also extra aware of my femaleness and its relative standing in the power hierarchy. I’m used to being an assertive female in the U.S.–I’m already moderating those impulses even in my severely sleep deprived haze. I’m too busy being grateful for people working with me across all my differences. On the whole, everyone is being extraordinarily kind and gentle and patient.

And then there’s the gripping experience of going through Kolkata traffic in a taxi, which even at 6am had me in deep prayer mode. The acceptable margin of space between vehicles, and between vehicles and pedestrians, is another form of unexpected, excruciating intimacy.

prepaidtaxi

Today I nap, and listen to the crow outside my window knocking on the glass. He and I understand each other. (More pics to come.)