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Being Brought Low

IMG_8865Living 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.

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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.

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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.”

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Impossible Situations

Domkhar Village, Ladakh
High desert, high mountains, thin air, ancient Buddhist monasteries, and intensely blue skies–this is Ladakh, or the Ladakh that most tourists know. But there are other Ladakhs to know, worlds inside of worlds that most visitors to Ladakh are not aware of.
On the Road to Domkhar from Leh
When we arrived in the village of Domkhar, 120 kilometers from Leh, I knew I had arrived in a different world. Village elders calmly rimmed the gathering area in front of the school, prayer wheels spinning in their hands, mothers sat with their children in their laps, and thermoses of tea from each family waited beneath the tent shade. The village’s community spirit was palpable as the entire village welcomed us in a ceremony that celebrated the community’s recent accomplishments. Located in a beautiful, narrow valley with sheer cliffs made of uplifted conglomerate earth on the side of the Indus River Valley, Domkhar is home to approximately 32 families who farm apricots, barley and a variety of vegetables on terraced plots. Intelligently, the villagers have channeled water to run by the houses and along the walkway that winds up through the village.  The night we spent in Domkhar, the moon’s light, one day short of full, shone so intensely that it lit up the whole valley–the immense, rust-red mountains, the fields of thick barley, the blue sky, all shyly emerging from beneath night’s cloak. Two years ago this past April, the area got in one day the amount of rain that they would normally receive  in 50 years, resulting in mudslides that carried away bridges, houses, people, and much of the valley’s good soil used for farming, replacing it with rock. The whole region is still recovering, as is Domkhar.
Ladakh Overview from Matho Monastery
I went to Domkhar with my husband Michael as part of the Partners in Education teacher training work we do with teachers in Ladakh, and also with the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools here in India. This was our second visit to Ladakh, and our school principal from the American Embassy School and one of our technology teachers, Gagan Soni, accompanied us. The purpose for our visit was to observe teachers teaching in their classrooms in order to get a better understanding of their situation and needs, and to give them feedback on the ideas they have put into practice ideas from our previous teacher training workshops that they have attended over the past couple of years since we began our work with them.
Rinchen teaching in Domkhar
Teaching in the Ladakh region is challenging for numerous reasons. The Indian government considers the Ladakh area a hardship posting, so the government moves teachers to different villages every three years, sometimes more often. One of the teachers in the village of Domkhar has been moved six times in one year. Her child is one year old and has rarely seen his father since birth. Children who have a parent who is a teacher often only have one parent present with them in the home. Another challenge for teachers in the region is that the tests and text books are in English, while the local language is Ladakhi, a language which is not taught in schools, and the official language of the country they live in is Hindi.  Neither teachers or students feel they are competent speakers, readers or writers in any of these languages. Also, schools often have very few books or resources to assist them, in addition to the fact that in India beginning teachers are required to have only one year of training beyond high school. These, and other other challenges make it difficult for teachers to be adequately prepared to teach, thus affecting the quality of the education they are able to give their students.
Students at Government School, Matho, Ladakh
While the situation is very challenging, teachers continue on with their work. Villages like Spituk, Matho and Dhomkhar believe in the value of education for their children. In Domkhar, for example, the village has raised the money for their own school building and for a satellite so they can communicate on the laptops that our school, AES, donated for their use. They have also raised money for a micro-hydro generator so that they can create electricity for their school and community. A new project for them now is that they are adding on a new section to their school using the plastic bottle construction method that a number of locations in Latin America have begun to use as a way of recycling plastics. Tashi Thokmat, the Domkhar village leader enthusiastically shared with us his news yesterday that as part of World Environmental Day, the villagers of Domkhar have made an appeal to tourists and citizens of Ladakh to place their used plastic bottles in collection containers. These containers as of yesterday are placed in various hotels in Leh. The villagers will then take the bottles back to their village and use them for their new building.  “We can’t stop the plastic bottles but we can reuse those empty plastic bottles in many other ways” the villagers explain in their appeal to hoteliers–an appeal which made it into last night’s TV news. The vision the villagers are creating together has built a strong sense of community and citizenship, so much so that the young people who have gone away to Delhi to university want to come back to the village to live because they feel committed to their community.
Children at Spituk Government School
People like Cynthia Hunt of HEALTH Inc., among other NGOs, are helping Ladakhis to improve their lives. Still, after their numerous accomplishments the Domkhar teachers ask “What can we do to improve?” This is the question we all have when we want to change our lives and make things better. In the midst of difficult situations, however, a number of Ladakhis are already doing a variety of things that create hope. While the main source of income for Ladakhis is tourism and more and more hotels are being built, the hotels use water from aquifers that is drawn up for use. This is an unsustainable process, however, as Ladakh is a desert. Water is scarce and the water withdrawn is not replaceable. One of the teachers who works at one  the local government schools, Chetan  Anchok, is writing scripts for production on local TV, and radio plays for a program called Family Serial, a popular program for Ladakhis. The purpose of the scripts he writes for these programs is to make Ladakhis more aware of social issues and of how to use environmental resources sustainably. The teachers in Domkhar are reaching out to attend teacher trainings and  they are working to understand and apply new skills and to improve their English, as are the other teachers we are working with in the schools around Leh and in the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools. It is a slow process and the need is great but small changes make bigger, systemic changes more possible, and they make difficult situations feel more bearable.
Michael with students from Spituk government school, Ladakh
Since moving to India five years ago, I have often struggled with how to respond compassionately to the enormous social problems present here. No matter what one might do to alleviate the poverty one sees, it seems it will be but a grain of sand in the vast desert of need. I have been reading the book 106 Impossible Things To Do Before Breakfast, by Robert Quine and John Nolan, a book of exercises to keep the mind creatively looking at solutions to problems that seem impossible such as doing laundry without soap, telling time with a broken clock, or taking a shower without water, etc.  The authors describe three key ideas for a person to keep in mind when dealing with impossible situations: “1. Consider all the possibilities, 2. Accomplishing the impossible takes a lot of work, 3. Everything is possible.” The authors describe that though problems may seem impossible, you have to open your mind to get rid of preconceptions to find ways around the obstacles. Once you do, you will start looking at the world in a different way. You’ll see it alive with possibilities, not barriers.”  Beneath Ladakh’s raw and elemental beauty is a world of work to do to create a better quality of life for its inhabitants. Working together, constructive change can be made. There is no way around the fact that the problems are large, that the work will be hard, and that it will take time,  lots of it, but the world remains alive with possibility.
Dechen Angmo, local Ladakhi teacher