Sucky Workout

I got up late to go to the gym. Then I came home, had a quick lunch, showered and went and got a massage. Now I’m on my couch writing. I am treating myself. I’m living my fantasy day, but it started out as a bad day. I had a terrible night of sleep. I’m preoccupied and it stays with me no matter how many episodes of Louis CK I watch in a row.

At the gym, my body felt like a heap of disorganized bricks. There was no whole to my body. There were only grumpy parts, each with a specific broken rhythm. I haven’t been this weak since I started working out a month ago.

Everything hurt, everything felt too hard to do.

I was constantly out of breath.

All my joints with glitches were acting up. Knees, ankle, wrists, lower back–they were all on the edge of injury. My body had suddenly regressed. This offends me. Body must report for duty and behave as anticipated. My body went about being terrible and uncooperative despite my resentment.  I know about trending towards the mean–I was doing pretty good for a while there and now comes the backlash. I should resign myself, I’m probably going to suck for a bit, just so my average remains average.

It’s inevitable–the universe mandates occasional bad days. I have trouble accommodating bad days. I don’t have time for feeling crappy–I’m already dealing with mid semester schoolwork exhaustion–I don’t need other reminders of life’s inherent cruelty. I realize I am being a bit of a whiner here. Allow me to contemplate how far I’ve come, how far I still have to go, and my biggest struggle, my body’s default inertia.

At the same time, there is a recognizable pattern. I know that when I’m doing any exercise, I start off okay, then I have a terrible middle part where all I want to do is go home and never come back, and then if I manage to persist, something subtly changes and I am suddenly doing better, feeling stronger and more competent (unless I’m too exhausted, in which case my morale improves but my body can’t keep up and my form sucks).

It’s likely there’s some interesting metaphor for work, for progress, and for life somewhere in these paragraphs, but my insight, like my stamina, has been momentarily exhausted.

Mammogram world

I’m at the hospital for my annual mammogram screening. Totally banal. They cover the walls in pink-framed nature and flower scenes–this does not calm me down. I still feel like a beast at a slaughter facility. It will be a narrow escape.

It’s a feeling more than a thought–wearing the antiseptic gowns that smell like frozen meat makes me utterly vulnerable.

There’s the total silence (except for the bad news tv channel playing) and the dim yellow green lighting in the waiting room.

We waiting women do not bond. We sit in fearful stillness awaiting our moment of radiologic scrutiny.

Then there’s my lifelong irrational thought that I will get breast cancer at some point. It’s just a matter of waiting. There is a history in my family. I’m not just a breast pessimist.

The silence in the waiting room is accompanied by a lethal clinical silence from the administering professionals.

No one tells you your odds. There is no attempt to calm you down with human empathy. Pull the random trigger of gene expression and wait for your lottery results.

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ps: As negative as I am about this womanly right of passage, I am deeply grateful for the care. Knowing is always better than not knowing–it gives me the freedom of options.

Relief and Stress and Jewels

Life is rich and rewarding and exciting and … gosh I get tired sometimes.

This year, I have a little bit of time back in my schedule, and I’ve been trying to diversify my routines. Mix it up a bit. Try new things, or go back to old things that fell out of my routines in last year’s crazy medley of internship, full-time work, trying to see my friends and loved ones and going to class. I want to be me again.

I just want to find new ways to reconnect with my self, in all my dimensions: creative, emotional, physical, and … I’m still wrestling with the spiritual bit. The intellectual bit has been over-engaged over the last seven semesters of Social Work school. So I’m shopping for food and planning some meals, and doing some cooking, which I love (and sometimes gets me in trouble). I’m trying to pamper myself, from time to time, as my budget allows.  Today I got a pedicure, and then I got a manicure, because it was a good deal, and now I’m sitting with my lovely shiny totally unnatural nails feeling posh, at least until I chip my hands (which I will very soon!). I’m pushing myself to get more physical–I’m from a family that lives in its cranium, and many of us barely acknowledge the body as we lounge and devour books.  Even my one major hobby, writing, does nothing for my body, though it feels nearly spiritual, it fills me so with joy. There’s also the beauty and wisdom of my friends, which I totally rely upon. They humble me in the most wonderful way.

So that’s my goal, before I graduate with my new minted Master’s, I’m just trying to reconnect and re-engage all my aspects, so I can be be a multifaceted jewel of a person, and not just a string of brainy pearls. (Don’t take that personally, brains.)

The Fitness Dance

I have finally fallen down the fitness hole into the care of a fitness trainer. This was many years in the making. For two decades I took myself to the gym, forced some cardio, perfunctorily performed sit-ups, and with pleasure used the weight machines.

I got reasonably far if I stuck with it, but there always came a time when I ran out of steam. Repetition, boredom, loneliness. I do not like sharing my fitness journey. No one needs to see me sweat or grit my teeth. I like to plug into a Pandora Fitness radio station and go. As best I can. There always comes a setback. This year it was India, in 2012 it was a back injury.

I am passionate about my new social work career, but it is emotionally exhausting, and the end of the day leaves me ready for a long nap and warm blankets. While napping is my go to stress relief option, I realize it’s not the best or most effective choice I can make to manage my body or my mind.

I’ve decided to take (some) choice out of the equation and avail myself of professional services. I went to the trainer in dread of the bullying. I can worry about anything. In this case I worried it would be either too hard or too easy. I worried it would be great and I’d be starting a new expensive habit. I didn’t know how I would feel about being exhorted to ever greater effort. The most terrifying thing about having a trainer is seeing other people at the gym who are further along in their fitness journey doing terrible looking balance, strength and endurance exercises. I look at them and then I look away and pretend they are Aliens–what they are doing will never apply to me. They terrify me. I don’t want to be them. I hope I will be them. Dragging a weighted sled to the yard mark and dropping for push ups before the timed sled run continues. It’s crazy. What the trainers make people do is amazing.

One of the nice things about no longer going to the Penn gym, where 20 year olds abound, is not having to see a bunch of fit 20 year olds, who aren’t really striving, they’re just using their young bodies with ease. At my new gym, I see a variety of people at various levels of fitness using their bodies, working through sweat to meet personal goals.

I am awkwardly one of them. It turns out, despite my array of misgivings, that I love having a trainer. First, and most important, the two trainers I have worked with are wildly more inventive in the array of tortures they devise than I ever dreamed. Whoever is responsible for fitness science, bravo–you’ve really perfected the art of fitness in the last twenty years. The trainers (try to) make you fast, they make you strong, they make you lean.  Every exercise uses  upper, core, and lower portions of my body. There are lots of interesting props. There is anguish. And there is a lot of discomfort the next day–once my body cools, it slows down as though it were weighted by leaden sheaths, but it’s just my skin, laying gently over my exhausted muscles. I’ve learned that I can still work out when my body is sore–something I’ve never done before.

And being constantly watched and constantly accountable changes the game. I push harder, I am also pushed harder. It sometimes borders on fun, but mostly I’m grateful for the kindness of having someone full of hope try to help me transform. It’s amazing what external sources of hope can do for me.

Food Is So Freaking Good

I made some ratatouille last night. My secret ingredient was the expired wine in the back of the fridge. I have a purple veggie stew and it tastes absolutely delicious. I thought it was just my biased opinion, but a friend came over and confirmed my suspicions. When I get the time and gumption to cook, the end result is usually pretty tasty. This is my downfall. I love what I make. Last night I had two heaping servings of these veggies. My tummy was all stretched out, ratatouille-iffic. I could barely move off the couch to go lie in bed, read and wait for digestion to occur. I justified the second serving because I was eating veggies. Impeccable logic, clearly.

I love food. I’m not sure what food’s feelings about me are, but it really doesn’t matter, this one-way crush is going nowhere.

I keep trying to change our relationship. I ping pong between health-seeking solutions and the total satisfaction of eating a very good, juicy medium rare hamburger with blue cheese and bacon, and plenty of ketchup. Sometimes I double down on fruits, nuts and vegetables. I try to meet my deliciousness quotient sideways. I distract myself with a large volume of berries, and organic heirloom grape tomatoes. Stuffed full of baby carrots doesn’t count. I’m sure of it.

(I wonder what it is about feeling really full that makes me feel so happy. It’s like the world is bountiful and I am now a vessel of that bounty. I am full of nature’s boundless generosity.)

My fruit-stacular evasive maneuvers work sometimes, but not all the time. After my veggie burger lunch, I’ll have an evening cheddar snack, a salad for dinner, and a heaping serving of chocolate and a shot of calvados later in the night. Maybe it’s my tapas-inclined personality. I thrive on flavor variety. I am bored by repetition. I cannot cook two dishes for the week and alternate between them. It would suck the joy out of my food fun. Basically, I need to keep my mouth entertained. It’s a demanding organ with a short attention span. It’s not me, it’s my mouth, it has its own agenda.

In the summer, when there are plenty of good things that come out of the ground, my good intentions get ground to dust by the smell of charred meat. The flavor of crisp, burnt animal fat is amazing. If you don’t believe me, buy a fruit pie made with a lard crust and see if you notice the difference.

Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a vegetarian. It’s a solid move, morally. But my taste buds would just mope around in my mouth. I would gripe about lentils and chickpeas. I try to imagine some halfway measures that might be sustainable for the long term, like eating seafood, bacon, and fruits and vegetables. Who am I kidding. Instead I eat a lot of tofu, flip-flopping between carnivorous and well-meaning.

My current efforts are focused on increasing my exercise to give me a bit more leeway in pursuing my one-way food crush. I’ll provide some updates as this initiative continues. For now I bid you a fond good evening, from the couch, where I have indulged in three salt free spelt squares as an alternative to delicious fondant maples sugar candies. Compromises.

Creative Energies

Sometimes I feel like a plant, or maybe a vampire. I find myself feeding off the vital energy around me. I used to love writing in bars–so much gregarious energy unleashed. Last Thursday night, September 12, I watched/listened to the Philly Song Shuffle at XPN. There were 55 acts in attendance, and they each got a four-minute set in which to play one song. I found myself filled with the sudden need to write. I’m going to blame the impulse on the 55 bands crossing the stage. Lone singer songwriters were interlaced with multiple-person acts, each with their voice and sound. Band members mixed between sets and there was some impromptu spillover, singers become dancers, rushing to others’ performances.

xpnIt’s been awhile since I’ve written, though the goal is on my to do list, staring back at me every single day.

During the Philly Song Shuffle, I wrote a first draft for a short essay where I declare myself to be a bonbon eater possessing a particular life esthetic. The essay felt terrific coming out. I was handwriting it on the back of the band set list. I rarely hand write, I tend to think as I type, but that night the pen in my fingers, the pen on the page, felt both natural and urgent.

I’ve noticed the importance of other people’s art for my personal productivity before. I feel rejuvenated and strangely full of thoughts and impressions (closer to my identity) when I visit paintings or photography, sit for theater, or watch a dance performance. Nature also has some of this effect on me. Movement, music, color–communing with someone else’s creative process, it all works to renew my own passions, my own sense of direction, purpose and drive.  Maybe it’s time to stop noticing the beneficial effects of art and start being more deliberate in my consumption/exposure.  I could take my laptop to see bands with me at The Fire, for instance. This will take some pondering and some conscious planning. To be continued.

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.

The Manuscript(s) in my Drawer

For kicks and giggles, I pulled together all my finished and unfinished (but promising) short stories into a manuscript back in 2011. (I included everything that wasn’t a fairy tale that I had written). I wanted to find out my total word count and whether I had enough for a book. This story collection currently clocks in at 50,000 words, which is a bit short, but not terrible.

After I found out I had a viable amount of material that needed a gentle spit shine and once over, what did I do?

Nothing.

Getting my writing act together has always been tantalizingly possible. But my inertia rules the day. Admittedly, I had solid excuses. I was working full time, in graduate school and completing an internship all last year. I worked 6 days a week.  But I have not touched these stories since November 2011. Months have swooshed by and I have done nothing.

(In fact, I have three short manuscripts that need revisiting. My other two are my fairy tale collection and my memoir project.)

It is July 30, 2013. I’m taking the Heinlein and Hemingway admonition that writers finish their work seriously. Dear internet, it’s time for a solemn vow. I’m going to polish/edit/finish at least one story in my manuscript each week. I have 13 more stories to go. If this works out, come mid-October, I should have one competed manuscript. Then starts the hard part, I will look for an agent. No more swooshing time. No more doing nothing. I have a simple plan to execute. (Execute sounds lethal alright.)

Sharing the morning with Hemingway, Heinlein

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.” Hemingway in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton.

There was a short period of time a few years ago when I woke up every morning an hour early to work on my memoir. There was another blessed period when I timed myself for 15 minutes daily and forced myself to write for at least that long (typically longer). The timed writing happened mostly in the evening. Both periods were very rewarding. I invariably feel better about my life and my future when I take the time to write. I like Hemingway’s notion of slowly warming to your work first thing in the morning. Proceeding from dream mind to creative mind to immersed mind with the new day. I might start slow and just wake up 15 minutes earlier than planned to work on new writing this week.

I’m also newly fascinated with Heinlein’s five rules for writing. There’s a lot of coverage of these rules, embracing or discrediting aspects of them. But the simplicity is alluring:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

1-5: Each and every one of these steps is a huge leap, a major requirement, and has a ton of embedded assumptions.

1. Obviously, writing is a requirement of writing. It’s a verb, it requires action. I’m trying to be more deliberate about making time.

2. Action is nice. Completed action is better. Finishing. Finishing is one of many things I struggle with. I try to balance out Stephen King’s advice to let a completed work lie fallow for a period of time before you take it up again with another reported quote by Hemingway I keep around to keep me going: ““Write every day and finish what you start.”  Should I keep at it until I’m done, or give it time to rest? I have done both. Each approach has its frustrations.

3. Refrain from rewriting–that’s assuming my story works. That’s assuming I’ve found a satisfying tone, structure, plot, narrator and dialogue. That’s assuming my metaphors are doing good work. I think it’s a “refrain from tinkering once you have reached the end.” Reaching the end is another matter.

4. Put to market–this is great advice–but it’s totally insufficient to the reality. I’ve just started becoming a little bit better about sending stories out to editors. I have a lovely compilation of rejections, and a (very) small number of acceptances. But my rejections are getting perkier. They’re trickling in slowly, and slowly getting more positive. Editors are letting me know my work is making final editorial rounds, and I’m being encouraged to resubmit in the future. I must be maturing as an author. I’m just not quite ripe fruit yet. At least I have a notion of forward movement–reasons to keep at it. While very few publishers provide feedback, occasionally I get lucky and an editor provides interesting insights that help me with my rewrite.

5. Keep the work on the market until published/sold–I see each round of submissions/rejections as a new opportunity to edit.  My work does get better with each iteration.

Lessons percolating. I think Hemingway, besides being a brilliant (and sexist) author, had the leisure of writing in another age. There were probably fewer aspiring writers sending out their submissions, and there wasn’t Submittable to power instant gratification for those seeking to submit, or the New Yorker’s online submissions option. Mixed blessings, all. I feel for the editors wading through the oceans of random submissions by writers of all stripes and levels of proofreading, let alone writing, ability.

Even as I work to re-master disciplined daily writing, I’m going to remind myself that there is an end goal. I need not only to write, not only to finish, but to publish, and that specific quest has its own set of hazards and opportunities–more on that later.

Back to (Creative) Writing

I started writing this post last week, and then abandoned it as my doubt made it too hard to move forward with such a smug tone. I’m back at it again today, pondering life, writing, and, most important, finding good writing habits that lead to being published.

Last week’s beginning: I edited two stories today.  It came naturally. It felt really good. After months and months of guilty hiatus, using my creative writing brain was glorious.

So good in fact that I felt like I had special x-ray glasses on–I could see what bones were missing from my story’s skeleton. Looking at my story’s body, I could see what needed thinning down and what needed plumping up. I tend to repeat myself, so I cut a bunch of those redundancies out. I clarified. I threshed. I wove in a new layer. I reconnected beginning and end in more concrete ways.

This week’s conclusions: Last week, after having one beautifully productive day followed by a day of submitting one completed manuscript out, I’m back in my non-writing, non-editing slump. I am perpetually struggling with making time to write. I keep saying to myself, just 15 minutes a day will get you a book by the year’s end. It sounds plausible. Those 15 minutes don’t (yet) exist in my life. I’m just not that consistent. In search of motivation, determination, and a steely resolve, I go to other writers’ advice to try to find a model I can live with. The inspiration is useful for a good 10 minutes–Kurt Vonnegut had a great routine I can’t duplicate. Still, reading how others organized themselves, I feel invigorated and purposeful for a moment, and then the daily worries set in–I should spend my time trying to earn an income. I need to focus on this or that class project or reading. My drawers need reorganizing. I should call my grandma. The list is endless.

The other major battle raging is between writing new stories and finishing long lingering pieces that need to be edited and reworked. Part of me wants closure, part of me wants evasion into brand new skies, wants to see what’s under my creative hood–what will my mind seize upon today? And so here I am blogging instead of editing. Another momentary soother of my itch to write. Suggestions are welcome.

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.

Excessive Beauty

I’m touring in India, and it’s exhausting because it’s damn beautiful. Trying to take in this much beauty is draining, in some ways more so than the sun and heat, and the crowds, and the hawkers clamoring. Yes, I’m complaining because there’s too much wonderfulness about.

P1070001I’m also thinking about the difference between living in Kolkata, food shopping, walking in the streets, and commuting on the metro, and the experience of being chauffeured around (largely a safety measure as I am a woman traveling solo) between hotels and tourist sights. I didn’t think it was possible to create a bubble that made the harder aspects of life in this society disappear, but indeed sticking to tourism puts a shielding gloss over the experience of being in India. After six weeks of life at street level, a little luxurious distance can be pleasant, though I do feel the difference–I’m no longer in India–I’m floating above, in the tourist bubble, touching select ground for brief intervals, and only for the sake of beauty. There is a great deal of beauty here, but only taking in the beauty feels like trying to marry the person you’re excited about dating in the first three weeks of a great romance. Having tasted some of the struggle of life in the country, I can now see this harmonious, painless week for the privileged illusion it is. I am so glad to have had these two opportunities. The most beautiful sight in any setting has consistently been women in their sarees and salwars–that will be my final memory of the country.

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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.

Acts of Communication

Ever since I got to Kolkata, I have been trying desperately to communicate with my fellow humans. It’s an attempt because it’s very hard to ascertain how much is truly understood in this environment–there’s a lot of nodding, engine starting, plunging forward, with uncertain results on the line. It’s also desperate, because I dearly wish to share information, or a common purpose, or an agreed upon destination. There is often the appearance of agreement, or a measure of understanding, but results will vary. And when results vary, there is the kindness of strangers, or at least my persistence in seeking out information in the dark, in the rain, in New Alipore, engaging one auto rickshaw driver and his clients in conversation at a time, trying to ascertain my distance from my destination.

In the last four weeks in my search for mutual comprehension, I have employed miming skills, the handing over of currency, body posture, hand gestures, eye movements, lots of wide smiles or concerned looks. I will show written text. I say the words haltingly. I repeat the words, hoping for a different answer or a different head nod. I pray. Once I’ve raised my voice to respond to volume with volume when I was being spoken to stridently in Bengali (and couldn’t understand) knowing that my English would also not be understood. I’ve ascertained that occasional volume is an acceptable form of communication. Conversations here are quite animated, with multiple people expressing their views simultaneously. I am in admiration of the translator who facilitates our research for her vocabulary, quickness of mind, and prodigious memory for long streaks of expression.

I know maybe five Bengali phrases. And most people here know a few English phrases, but it’s exceedingly subtle work trying to assess overall language comprehension on either side in any conversation. The most enthusiastic are the young children and teenagers in the street who will call out a phrase after my passing. Today it was “Nice umbrella!” which I gratefully registered.  Many are shy to reveal their English skills. Some will only start speaking English when I am befuddled by a situation and they are embarrassed on my behalf with my uselessness and general ignorance. Many understand more than they can speak. Some can read better than they can process spoken words (with my American accent), and others make a show of nodding, but it is eventually revealed that we have each failed to make the other understand. In turn I stumble over the rhythms, intonations and the phrasings, there are quite a few British-isms, and many other interesting uses of language: a man mentioned molestation last night, and I think he meant masturbation. I could be wrong. Many people speak to me in Bengali when they get frustrated with the situation, and I too find myself using more English to explain what I would so dearly like. Amidst the surprises, the challenges, there are many triumphs, big and small, all day long. I am getting where I want. I am traveling, purchasing, bartering, speaking, hugging, smiling back, all the time. It’s a miracle. Should I thank the British or curse them for the spread of English? Of course I feel guilty being the benefactor of imperialism, but post-colonialism bites back, humorously again and again.Sylviepond It is a great lesson in the many ways I can communicate, and the many ways I will fail to do so.

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).

newoutfit

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