Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.
Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.
Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.
Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.
What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become
but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.
Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.
Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”
Black mold has invaded our apartment and is growing in the walls. For days now I’ve not slept well. First workers came and pulled off the tiles in the bathroom to fix the leaky pipe, releasing the reeking smell into the air. They have since tiled the wall back in this week, but the caustic smell is still there. The mold is masked, but continues on inside the wall and is pushing its way through into the living room.
Clearly, the mold had been there for some time, though we didn’t realize it. Red or puffy eyes in the morning, wheezing at night, draining sinuses, rashes on the skin, and yes, even hair loss, which I’ve been noticing for some time now and wondering why it is happening, these (and more) are the signs of reaction to mold, but because we couldn’t see it, we didn’t know the mold was growing behind the walls until the neighbors complained their walls were showing stains.
When the workers broke open the walls they released the toxic smells. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing how we might get better at connecting with people and situations we found difficult in our work. She asked if I had listened to Brene Brown‘s TED talk “The Gift of Imperfection.” I hadn’t, but went home that evening and listened to several of her talks. One of Brown’s statements, out of many that resonate with me is this: “Unused creativity is not benign; it metastasizes. It turns into grief, judgement, sorrow, and shame.” I thought of the mold behind the wall. A pipe behind a wall leaks. You don’t realize it, but the mold begins growing, and eventually you have a problem you can’t fix simply by breaking open the tile, repairing the leak, and then tiling the wall back up. The mold is growing now, and you’ve got to remove it and create something new.
Since the apartment I live in isn’t mine, I don’t get to make the choice about removing the mold growing in the wall or covering it back up with tile, however. The choice of putting something in the wall that kills the mold, or to mask it with clorox instead, isn’t mine. As I lie in the bed at night coughing, I think of the people everywhere who are living with mold or who have lived in oppressive environments.
When the Czech writer and illustrator Peter Sis, came to the American Embassy School here in Delhi several years back, he explained over dinner with a small group of teachers that he is a man without a country. The country he was born into, Czechoslovakia, no longer exists. Those words have echoed in my mind ever since. It took Odysseus 10 years to make it back home after the Trojan wars. That is a long time, but some people can never return home because there is no home to return to. There is suffering in situations like these. Once you are gone a decade from your home, you are changed. You might return home, but you won’t necessarily every be at home again as the world of home, like a ship under sail, continues on its own trajectory while you have been sailing along a different route encountering land and storms not like those you might have experienced had you stayed on the ship you began on. All seas are not the same.
When some people leave home, they don’t want to return, however. My husband’s grandparents came from Italy, but when asked if he would like to go on a trip with us to visit Italy, his father expressed absolutely no interest in it. “Why would I want to go there?” was his response. That was the end of the conversation. As someone who loves travel, is curious about the world, and wants to understand the roots I’m connected to, that statement perplexed me. Currently, I’m reading Milan Kundera‘s book of essays, Encounter. In his essay, “Exile as Liberation According to Vera Linhartova,” Kundera quotes her saying, “The writer is above all a free person, and the obligation to preserve his independence against all constraints comes before any other consideration. And I mean not only the insane constraints imposed by an abusive political power, but the restrictions–all the harder to evade because they are well-intentioned–that cite a sense of duty to one’s country.” People have fled their countries because of war, have been exiled for their ideas or their writing. But some people don’t chose to return because greater than a bond to history or language, is the person’s desire to choose his or her own path, one that has given them what they sense to be a greater freedom, freedom they wouldn’t have if they returned to the world their history is rooted in. France allowed Linhartova’s creative freedom. Freedom is connected to struggle.
My husband’s grandparents gave up their lives in Italy, and struggled under great difficulty to make a life in the United States. Similar to Linhartova, remaining outside the country of their birth was a choice. The struggle to make a life in another country and culture allowed their children and grandchildren greater opportunity and freedom. Standing between two worlds, they found a home outside of the definitions of home they knew. They lived on the edge of great challenges and risk. Brene Brown says in her interview with Krista Tippett “The Courage to Be Vulnerable” on Tippett’s site On Being, “The …beautiful thing I look back on in my life is coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could come out from underneath…the moments that made me, were moments of struggle.” Our family’s Italian grandparents, like immigrants in general, were brave. Their stories aren’t without loss and grief, but they they followed the path that called to them, and today, without ever having met them, I feel gratitude for the daring their lives demonstrated in giving up the world they knew in exchange for a life still full of difficulty, but one lived with hope and a sense of possibility.
Living here in India, I constantly see people struggling for survival. I want the people I encounter to know they will get to eat every day, to be able to go to school, to realize they have stories worth telling and hearing, that their lives have meaning and their creative expression is valuable. But the poor of the world, and those without opportunity are often unseen and ignored. To go to school in Delhi, a child needs a uniform. Some families are too poor to buy the uniforms, and therefore, their children don’t attend school. There is need.
Outside the gates of our school here in Delhi this morning, children who live in the slum across the street waited to be measured for school uniforms that teachers here at our school are raising money to buy for them. Education will give these children opportunity.
John Ciardi, in his poem, “Matins,” writes about a poor woman who died on the streets of Paris,
It froze in Paris last night and a rag doll
that had been a woman too tattered-old to notice
turned up stiff on a bench. So the police,
who spend least on the living, paid to haul
nothing to nothing. She could have lived for a week
on what the bureau will spend on paper work;
The poem goes on to describe how more was spent on the woman after she died than it might have taken to help her live, and find how to give her a place in the world. Ciardi’s poem closes with these words:
risked from love and held must be put down
to walk itself away, and turn by turn
become another. This dirty doll unheld
by any arm is one altar piece
from which mad Francis learned to be a priest.
It takes courage to notice the things in our lives and our world that aren’t going so well, that are like the mold growing behind the wall, and to move out into a life of challenge, but the possibility of greater freedom. If we continue to ignore those things that are eating away at us, however, or don’t give creative expression to it when it’s not in our power to change things, eventually the mold breaks through the wall and we’re no longer living in a life engendering place.
Inside the world of discomfort and the wreaking smell of mold, some are brave enough to break open walls and persevere as they reach to find a path with their lives that offers hope and makes a difference. Noticing the poverty around him is what called St. Francis to live his life under the vow of poverty, a life given to empathy and compassion that still touches our lives centuries later. The world could use more people as brave as he.
It is late afternoon and we have returned from the art room where my husband, Michael, holds an adult art afternoon on Sundays where many people (like myself) are exploring art for the first time, learning they can make things they didn’t know they could. Now he’s out in the community garden planting seeds because tonight is the blood moon, a rare lunar eclipse of a super moon, and a good time for planting, he says. It’s an effort, he explains, to make a healthy life for people. “To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly,” Brene Brown states. From organizing the effort to raise the funds for having the children’s uniforms made so they can go to school, to helping people discover ways to be creative, to planting seeds, to preparing this evening’s meal, which he is about to do, my husband is a man who day by day is following St. Francis’s path of giving himself to the world around him. If we are going to change the world, surely it will take each of us being faithful in the small things with those around us daily. As Mother Teresa said, “that is where our strength lies.”
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.
“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel
Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.
When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.
Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.
The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.
I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.
For months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,
“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’er sways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out, Against the wrackful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays? O fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O! none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.
Why do I continue living in India year after year? There are practical reasons, of course, but there are other reasons too. Just last week, for example, I saw a camel walking down the road amidst busy traffic. One doesn’t see that sight on the street every day! It’s not exactly common here either, but then again, it’s not something that could never happen.
Though I’ve lived here for a number of years now, a recent trip to Old Delhi, like all trips to Old Delhi, opened my eyes once again to entirely other ways of being and living that remain a wonder even after seeing them many times. There is the wonder of wire, for example, and how the city caries on though wires are tied in Gorgonian knots most anywhere you choose to look up–yet it does, and that’s amazing. Monkeys climb around the neighborhood balconies, monkeys occasionally appear on the school roof, and climb along the wires, moving from building to building. People pull and push loads so large it seems it would be impossible for the driver to navigate. On the side of the street amidst busy traffic you might see someone getting his ear cleaned, a person taking a nap or quietly reading. Everywhere on the city streets people are engaged in activity–sweeping, selling, driving, sleeping, eating. A whole world that holds a thousand stories is laid before your eyes–narratives with intricacies and ways of being that remain a mystery to me, even though I view the story in process before my eyes.
It’s true that India is full of many wonders but on the other hand, it’s also true that living in India with its enormous population, pollution and poverty constantly poses questions I don’t have answers for, this is one of the benefits of continuing to live here. It confronts me every day with challenges to the heart, mind and body. How do you negotiate daily through thick traffic? How do you breathe through months of smoke and pollution where the particulate matter in the air consistently ranges in the dangerous zone? How do you look at beggars on the street and who come to your door year after year and keep your heart open without looking away when there seems to be no end to their ongoing grief and pain? Even the dogs on the street carry in their bodies the imprint of loss and neglect. Look at their eyes and you can read their need. It is good to live with these questions, and to ponder them. They don’t go away, and won’t depart though I someday will. They make me ask questions about what is important in how I live, and what I’m doing with my life that matters–what are we doing together with the incredible gift of life on this earth. How are we using what we’ve been given for the good of all, including the earth itself?
When we see need in those around us, and of the earth around us, we can see the parts of ourselves that are lost, alone, and broken, and feel compassion. We can become more aware of our own interdependence on others. None of us are truly self-sufficient. Henri Nouwen says, “We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish.” Draw near, look the need in the eye. So often we don’t want to look at poverty in the eye. It’s too painful. We may not be able to fix the world with its pain and short comings. Still, we can reach out silently in our heart, with a “hello” of recognition. We can give a small offering of food. We can practice being present.
The traditional story “Loosening the Stopper,” from the Hassidic Jews of Poland describes a man who had a lot of money and gave generously to the poor. One day, however, the man was in conversation with fellow businessmen when a beggar approached him asking for money. The man didn’t want to interrupt his conversation to get his purse, so simply gave the beggar the loose change he had. The beggar threw the coin at the wealthy man, hitting him in the face, declaring it was an insult since he could give so much more and why didn’t he? The wealthy man decided that from then on he was going to give only a half-penny to anyone. When two rabbis approach him later asking for a donation, they agree to be grateful for whatever was given them that day. The wealthy man gave his half penny, and the rabbis thanked the man for his generosity. Later, the wealthy man returned and gave them much more money, again returning to giving generously.
The story concludes with one rabbi explaining to the other what it was that opened the wealthy man’s generosity. “It is also said that each step upward leads to another. Once we accepted his half-penny, we loosened the stopper on his generosity. Each gift he gave made the next one possible. Now, our willingness to receive has restored him to his goodness.” For those of us debating what to give, to whom and how, the wisdom in this story is to start somewhere. Give something. It is better to open up the stopper on your compassion than to go a lifetime holding back.
Sonnet 73, That Time of Year When Thou Mayst in Me Behold
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
It’s late spring in Delhi, which means the leaves are falling from the trees. Yellow leaves, and gold gather on the streets, pile on curbsides in drifts. The flowers that the city plants in the parks so that that were in full bloom in February and early March, are now growing spindly as stalks lean into each other, heads droop, and their bodies begin to turn to seed. The seeds are their gift for the future, the brown, withered looking things that hold the future generosities of spring. After the six or eight weeks of flowers, fall arrives. Then the months of monsoon–the floods of rain. That’s the season we’re in now, the season between seasons–between the dry and the wet.
When I was attending what was then called Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, my poetry teacher read Shakespeare’s 73 sonnet to us, and asked us to go out and look at the fall leaves–the fiery Dutch elms that grow in profusion throughout the city’s streets, and that crowd along the Mississippi’s river banks. Leave your books, she suggested, and go out and notice them before they are gone. They don’t last long.
A native of southern California, I knew what it felt like to live through the Twin Cities long months of winter’s color deprivation and cold that followed September’s autumn. For the most part, it seemed to me that Minnesotans loved their snowy winters. I had heard various people I met there describe how they looked forward to winters–the snowshoeing and cross country skiing, the briskness in the air. But coming from the land of sun, where winters didn’t usually require much more than a light jacket and shoes that covered the toes, that anticipatory attitude was difficult for me to understand. I hadn’t learned to ski or skate, and for me getting bound up in sweaters and mittens, hats, thick socks any time you went out wasn’t something I looked forward to. Change is interesting, but I truly missed the freedom of wandering outside for a stroll, run, or bike ride. So, I followed my teacher’s suggestion, and went out to walk through trees on campus, and visited other campuses along Snelling Ave. whose campuses were thick with trees. I went down by the Mississippi as she suggested. It was glorious–all that color shining in the myriad leaves. All that sugar burning inside them as temperatures turned. The whole world a flame. As my teacher said, the trees were all the more beautiful, for knowing what would come next.
And what came next was winter. Dark branches silhouetted against white for months. Beautiful things often have a way of piercing the heart, of opening us–the last yellow leaf falling from a tree, rainbow color glistening from a spider’s web, the way clouds roll in low over the ocean at sunset. As Dana Jennings says in her NY Times article “Scratching a Muse’s Ears”, about Mary Oliver’s poetry book, Dog Songs, says, there are tears inside of things. Because we know this, it can make our heart ache when we see something beautiful. We’ve all eaten from the tree that lets us know we are not living in the garden anymore–but we know what it looks like, that last leaf falling from the tree before winter, and how it feels to watch it fall, joining the fire floating down the river or resting on the forest floor before it turns to dust.
So, all of you who have sat at your desk all day, I encourage you. Get up, leave your books or your office, you papers and your e-mail, and go outside and notice this day. Find what there is to love in this day, before you have to leave it. Notice life. What is it you are living?
THE TABLES TURNED
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Okay, so I took my own advice and got up and went out for a walk. I didn’t have a wood to walk in, so I took a walk around the block where I live. The wisps of clouds turning from pink to salmon against a pale turquoise sky–the kind of sky that is rare in Delhi.
It was a short walk around a city block. The first quarter of the block I couldn’t stop staring up in amazement. The second quarter of the block, I grew aware of the traffic noise as it hustled by. As I turned the corner, I noticed a billboard that read “Platinum Living” with a sleek, blond-haired woman wearing an elegant low cut black gown and a long strand of pearls leaning back against a comfortable couch. I glanced down at the pair of abandoned black slippers at my feet on the sidewalk and wondered who this ad was aimed at speaking to in a city where a quarter of its population is below the poverty line, 30% live in slums, and in a country where the World Bank estimates that 21% of the deaths in India are related to unsafe water. As I continued to walk, the acrid smell of burning leaves permeated the air, scratched at my throat, and made me cough. (Sadly, too many things here seem to makes me cough.) By the time I turned the last corner and entered my apartment door again, the sky’s color had drained away.
Wordsworth’s poem admonishes us to go out into nature with a listening heart, one that watches and receives. That is definitely the heart I stepped out of the door with, and is the one I want to hold on to. I live in a city, though. It’s not the same as standing at the ocean’s edge or walking amidst the redwoods. What was I expecting, anyway? In truth, I was just expecting to enjoy the early evening coolness and to take in the color-brushed clouds. I just happened to get the other experiences in addition because they are a part of this environment. The walk makes me wonder, though, can experiencing beauty motivate us to protect it, nurture it? Or are we so used to the traffic, the billboards, the burning leaves and discarded shoes, to the poor living in substandard housing, that we give up on beauty, that we forget to notice those gestures of grace nature gives us even in the city from time to time–those rare moments of clear sky and color-streaked clouds that open our eyes, move us out of our routines, the moments that call us to step out of our brokenness into the possibility of another way of being?
On the other hand, maybe its that very poverty and brokenness around me that encourages me to notice the way the sky sometimes opens into a canvas of shinning color, as it did this evening. Either way, I need those moments of open sky and color. They carry me through winters. The winters I’m talking about don’t always necessarily always come with snow and cold. They can look like a multitude of cities flung across this world, or any place where we are too busy to notice or take care of what nurtures us.