Monday, February 28, 2011

neediness and the Christ Child

There are many famous people from Calcutta and most aren't nearly as annoying as Mother Teresa.  

Yup, that's right you heard me, I just called Mother Teresa annoying. 
People who knew her say that she was one stubborn lady, but that's not what I mean.  Why call attention to the worst of what India has to offer?  Who wants to be reminded of how unnecessarily excessive their lifestyle is?
That's what I mean by annoying.  
Here is a whole group of people, the Missionaries of Charity, who make you question yourself and your values every time you think about them. What am I clinging to that I really ought to sacrifice?  What is hindering my freedom and what will it take for me to decide to consider the needs of others as equal to my own?  Their lifestyle more than plants doubt that what appears at first to constitute privilege and opportunity actually is such.  
Am I really able to love more deply, more selflessly, because I know how to read and I eat three squares a day? 
M.T. did not mean to inspire this degree of angst in others. The ministry to the Poor is a good share of her legacy, but only one part of the work of the Missionaries.  It is not the core of it, and Mother said so herself.  We are not humanitarians nor social workers, she would say, we are contemplatives.  "Many people confuse our work with our vocation," she said.  "Our vocation is the love of Jesus."
Hraungerði. - The reredos.
Yes, that does kind of changes everything, doesn't it. 
Carryll Houselander, the twentieth century English writer and woodcarver, was one of those Christian mystics who believe that since the Annunciation Jesus has been, at all moments, living His Life out in the lives of people on earth.  He is sometimes unseen and hidden (as in His Mother's womb) and we need to make acts of faith in order to recognize that He is present and growing within us.  At other times--or rather, in other lives--He is absent for a season and it is up to us to do the seeking.  At all times, He is Child and Boy and Man, though manifested differently in different persons.  He is always hungry or praying or working or sleeping or teaching.  Most mysteriously, He is always being betrayed and abandoned, suffering and dying.

Contemplating Jesus and seeing His Face in the faces of the Poor as a way to think about poverty and suffering is one that can be done anywhere.  Anytime you see someone suffering and in pain,  try to remember, "That is Jesus, suffering in them."

The only thing is, it's not exactly what Mother Teresa said.  It's not what Carryll said, either. 

A few years ago that book came out that revealed all of M.T's deepest secrets and doubts about faith and God.  She did not live (as even those closest to her believed) in a close and sweet communion with God, flooded with peace and love, and secure in the knowledge that all was well and that God was pleased with her efforts and sacrifice.  Quite the opposite.
She did not talk about it much--in fact, she found it very difficult ever to speak about it at all--but occasionally confided in a few confessor-priests during the more than forty years of "spiritual darkness" she endured.  It turns out that whether she was working or speaking praying or doing anything at all, she always experienced a profound sense of being rejected, unwanted and unloved.

Does not sound fun, does it.

Eventually, one of the priests came up with a theory about why she felt such a feeling of inner sense of loss: she was experiencing a share of Christ's sufferings in His Passion.  She was not being "purified" of unhealthy worldly affections; there was no particular attachment from which she needed to be liberated.  This was no ordinary spiritual "dark night of the soul" of the kind St. John of the Cross wrote about (in which a soul is liberated in order to be free to love God for who He is instead of who they want Him to be for them).  This was something different.  Instead of feeling as if she no longer cared about God, she felt an intense longing and love for him.  So intense that it was painful for her and she could barely even talk or write about it. 
For more than forty years, Blessed Teresa lived the longing of Christ to love and to be loved.  He cried out from the Cross, "I thirst," just as He had asked the Samaritan woman by the well for a drink (John 4).  It is at once a cry of love and for love; a plea for love and not water, it expresses Christ's longing to love and to be loved in return. She did not only bear witness to Christ's presence in others, but she herself became Christ by being His love. 
She became love rejected, ignored and misunderstood.
"Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat," she said.  Remember that she endured it for forty years.  Having suffered homelessness, hunger, disease and fatigue at various points of her life, I guess she would know.  Mother always told people that they had "their own Calcutta" in their own towns or even families--people who were thirsty for love, hungry not to be forgotten or neglected and it is in our encounter with them that we encounter the One who loves and longs for us and begs for our love in return. 
That's the vocation.  The love of Christ.  
It's a weird one for me, what with the whole Protestant Reformed upbringing and all.  The kind of religious education I received as a child taught that the Redemption was complete, finished and in the past.  In no way was Christ's suffering or agony an ongoing thing.  It was over.  The only thing that was "needed" was a substitutionary atonement for sins, to satisfy a Law that was both rigid and demanding, a reflection of a God who required blood and sacrifice as payment.  "I Thirst" as a cry of longing for love...well, that seems to imply that Jesus was needy and doesn't that seem just a little pathetic? 
"We need the poor more than they need us.  Because the poor show us our need for God, our need for love."
This pathetic Jesus is one that I was not introduced to as a child.  I have not known him as a beggar, as unwanted and unloved.  It is a new thing to become acquainted with a Jesus who is lacking something.  

Could it be true?  Because it almost sounds like we're talking about a real person.   It almost sounds like we're talking about a child...or a baby. 

'Mother and Child'

Sunday, February 27, 2011

wait a minute...not a single unflattering photo of myself for a whole week?

What a week. 
Although it seems as if I have reached some new stage of cultural adaptation, I've had a range of moods and plenty of Serious Moments over the last few days.  February has something to do with it, no doubt, but that means something different here.  Summer is usually in full swing by early March, I have been told, and it gets hot.  I have not yet experienced the humid and mind-numbing heat of an Indian city in the summer, but apparently it leaves you so drained that you don't want to cook, eat, or work.  I am told that you can't even think.'s hot. (*)

Earlier this week, that would have been very welcome.  Too much thinking and rethinking and over-thinking.  Blah.  It would have been nice to turn that off a little. 
Yes, I am (finally) adapting (a little) to Calcutta and even somewhat mirroring the extremes of her contrasts.  Evidently the process involves as much intensity and pain as the city has to offer and, well, you'll just have to believe me on that one until you get a chance to experience it for yourself. 

Or you can take it from the experts.  In his book Calcutta, The City Revealed, Geoffrey Moorhouse introduces this great and terrible erstwhile capital of the British Empire: "This is the problem city of the world, with problems that not only seem insoluble but which grow every day at a galloping and fantastic rate.  […] Winston Churchill told his mother that 'I shall always be glad to have seen it—for the same reason that Papa gave for having been glad to see Lisbon—namely, that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again.' […] The truth is that almost everything popularly associated with Calcutta is highly unpleasant and sometimes very nasty indeed.  It is bracketed in the Western mind with distant rumours of appalling disaster, riot and degradation." 
Moorhouse has plenty of good stuff to say about Calcutta in his book.  It is obvious that he both admires and despises her, feels himself shrinking away from some of the worst she has to offer, and in awe that she still manages to survive (and in some corners even thrive).  He doesn't lie about the extent of the wreckage from famines, various wars and the naked greed that was the foundation of the city back when it served as the headquarters of the East India Trading Company.  And that is what is most distressing; he is trying hard to be honest.  His project was to document a little of the life of a city, the lives of its millions upon millions of inhabitants, and its past lives under various British (and perhaps Armenian) rules.  Rich and poor made the city and to both belong her horrors and her wealth.   

Moorhouse worked hard to create a truthful account and that is terribly upsetting to me because his story lines up with the one I have heard from my neighbors and others who say that the poverty of Calcutta—of India—is so devastatingly wretched that it is hard to compare it to anything.  These stories are the kind that make me want to curl up with some heartwarming fiction like Push.  (You know, the one they made into the movie "Precious.")  Because in Calcutta you encounter, on a regular basis, the kind of horrors that are usually confined to genocides or famines or sometimes prisons--all those times when humanity is on her worst behavior. 

Except that right now there is no war, nor famine nor genocide.  Just a city going about her business day after day.  It is ugly.

Turn-away-and-run-far-away ugly.  Get-on-that-plane-and-never-look-back ugly.
I am going to keep writing because (you'll never believe it) I have things to say.  I even have hope-full things to say, finally.  If you are interested, you are welcome to read along.  If this sounds like something you might not want to dive into during the month of February, or any other month, please don't. 

For those who do want to read, whenever it starts to get a little too intense and you start to feel Very Serious and Sober, then try to do what I did: take a Simcha break.  She is by far the funniest Jewish Catholic mom-of-eight blogger out there.  Sure, she's got her serious moments, too, I'm not saying that, but she's also got The Jerk, and this (don't let the title fool you, because it ends on a note of pure optimistic joy: "I’m just glad we belong a religion that believes in the value of suffering. Because, man, it’s only Tuesday. . .").  The comments to "My hobby" might be the funniest thing ever, besides the post itself. 

See you back here tomorrow, then!

Oh wait, I almost forgot.  Ta-da:

(*it's a bengal tiger.  get it?)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

hoping for hope

The problem with writing, spiritual writing in particular but in many other varieties as well, is that the one who is writing feels compelled to say something of significance or at least build to a strong conclusion, preferably a triumphant one where some question or interior battle—however small—is  resolved or at least pinned down neatly.  "Make as strong a case as possible," my academic advisor counseled me after reading an exceptionally messy draft I had handed over to him, and so I did.

We are faced with several options:

-          Give up.
-          Give in.  Produce less rigorous, less honest, and blander work (that is also much safer). 
-          Work harder.  We can dig deeper, go further, and sleep less to find the time to do good writing, and do it well.

Or here there is another choice: we can always just make stuff up to sound smart (which is kind of what I did for that paper in grad school).

There are about a half dozen drafts for posts sitting around in my "Edit Posts" folder, waiting for to be made suitable for publishing, and about a dozen more in my brain that I haven't gotten around to jotting down in note form to save for later.  I promised some posts about wealth and privilege and Mother Teresa, and when I sit down to type, I just can't seem to get them out. 

The obstacle is not time, but rather confusion.  I want to say something worthwhile and interesting and hopefully meaningful to someone out there, but I also want it to be true. 

I know when something is not true because it leaves me feeling dissatisfied or restless or worse, depressed.  If truth is not accompanied by hope, then it is only incomplete truth.  Like when you realize that you have failed a friend, or perhaps failed to come up with the right words at the right time to comfort said friend.  The realization is painful and you beat up on yourself then spend hours fretting about how you have probably ruined everything and that the relationship will never recover. 

Only after some tears (and maybe a cup of tea), and with some time to think calmly and without so much self-recrimination, do you realize that you haven't seen the whole truth.  The whole truth is that your friend is a good and decent person who loves you and knows that you don't always get it right at first.  And you remember that time three years ago when you really screwed up and then you also remember that even though it might not be patched up immediately, you and she have plenty of time to heal and work things out.  Maybe, if you go back and apologize and try again, the two of you might just end up closer (eventually) because of your mistake.  

The truth is: grace is real.

Hope provides a way forward after getting stuck, and I am sitting here waiting on it.   In the meantime, I may have to pick a theory and go with it, test it out and see how it feels. That's what I did with that thesis paper and it wasn't dishonest, it was just a learning technique: risk being wrong, look (or sound) foolish along the way, write confidently and even arrogantly, hold onto the idea-coattails of others smarter and wiser and then figure stuff out later if/when it doesn't work out.  This also is hope.  It is the confident hope that one day you will learn something, and even if there is no final statement of resolution, the questions can probably serve as conclusions.

Oh and one more thing: a note to self.  Let it go if it you find out you got it wrong.  Don't make the mistake of wrapping yourself up so much that you can't leave it behind and move on.  It may be hard to do, but it's not impossible.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

another reason to work for interior peace

found this over at Molly's today:

"You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives. All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a swamp that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace. Keep silent, refrain from judgement. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil."

           —St Seraphim of Sarov

Friday, February 18, 2011

two stories and a question

I am looking for advice.  

A few weeks back, I was lectured by someone only a few minutes after we had met.  She was a neighbor, sort of.  Actually, she lives abroad and had come back to visit her parents and her hometown.  Her kids and mine were busy playing in the sand and we had a lot of time to talk.  I mentioned that my kids attract a lot of, um, enthusiasm when we go out.  People pinch their cheeks, hug them, clutch at them and drag them into photo shoots where they have no business being.  I told her that I expect my kids to be polite, but they are exhausted by all the unwanted attention.  I understand that here it is culturally appropriate, but she must know, from living in the West, how contrary to our practices this is...

She interrupted me.  Why was I doing this?  Why was I compromising my values?  Was I trying to confuse my children?  To teach them that it was okay to compromise for the sake of being so-called culturally appropriate?  She was outraged.  It was inconsistent and worse: unsafe.  No one should be allowed to come up and touch my kid.  I am the parent and I set the rules.  Who cares if it came across as rude?  Who cares if it was rude!  They're my kids, after all!

Well, she had a point.  We stopped telling the kids to smile and endure, and we started moving them away from people before they could get too close, and saying "No" very forcefully when someone wanted to photograph them. 


For the first time this past Sunday, I took all three kids out on my own to church and then to lunch.  That means: three cab rides.  Which means, giving directions and negotiating a price (if necessary) in English/the three words I speak in Hindi.  The first ride was very smooth and the driver voluntarily used the meter.  I tipped him well to show my appreciation. 

The second ride was pretty bad.  We agreed on a price and I told him the location and asked, just to make sure, if he knew it.  Yes and yes.  As soon as we got in and took off, he changed the price (almost doubled it) and then went the wrong way.  I was frustrated and I felt badgered into paying his price.  I left the cab quietly, but frustrated and humiliated, and he laughed.  

Cab ride #3: very horrifically bad, but at least no one got hurt.  The guy ran the meter by going the wrong way on purpose I'm pretty sure and then got us stuck in the middle of a political rally with a bunch of closed-off streets and it took about three times as long as it should have.  At one point, we were about 2 blocks from our original starting point after having been in the cab 20 minutes already.  THAT'S how ridiculous it was.  

I told Jeremy later that I understand that cabbies are trying to make a living but I don't think we should encourage this sort of thing. I said, "It's probably okay to pay a bit less than the metered price when someone is so obviously cheating you out of a fair ride.  Then again, we are guests here and in a place like India it is hard to complain about injustice.  I don't think it's ever right to be rude to cabbies or anyone else, but it's okay to let them know you're not happy.  It's a fine balance between behaving yourself properly as an outsider and standing up for yourself when someone is taking advantage.  At the end of the day, if that is the worst wrong I suffer, I'm still probably better off than most."  Something like that.

But then later, while thinking about it, I wondered if this is the wrong attitude.  Obviously, this issue is not as serious as the first one.  Only money is at stake (and a bit of wounded dignity).  Still, I would never stand by quietly if a cab driver in New York City or Chicago tried to pull a stunt like that.  I would insist on a fair, metered rate, and I would insist on the shortest route.  I would at least complain if they didn't try to get me somewhere as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I might even accuse them of going the wrong way on purpose, if I was sure they had (although it's really hard to know if someone just made a mistake and could it be that cab ride #2 had set me up to be extra suspicious...?).  I might confront them and I would consider reporting them.

So here's my question: Should I (or any other tourist) insist on professionalism and not worry so much about so-called cultural sensitivity?  Am I just making excuses for not standing up for my rights as a consumer?  Is my nationality irrelevant?  There are plenty of cabbies here who DO use the meter and try to do their jobs well, regardless of the origin (or gender) of their customer.  Isn't it disrespectful to them to play this game at all?

And does any of this actually matter considering that I don't have a common language and I couldn't explain anything anyway!?!  (sigh)


and, just for fun, here is a view of Kolkata roads, from the backseat of a cab:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

bad haircut

The photo makes it look better than it actually is.  This is how it looked before it was completely dry and after smoothing it down quite a bit.
After the cut, the hairdresser brushed it, fluffed it out, took a hairdryer to it, fluffed it out some more, and then brushed and brushed and brushed and his eyes got wider and wider at how high it was going.  (think: pyramid head)   I was trying SO hard to keep a straight face but the girls didn't even try.
"Mommy!  You look so...different."

Anyway, tomorrow will be the real test once I try to style it myself, because besides the styling issues, the real problem is that once it curls, it will bounce up and out.  Yikes.

(ps: in case you're wondering, "Will Claire keep posting such unflattering photos of herself online?" the answer is, Probably.  Because I've conquered my vanity, see?)

Monday, February 14, 2011


Ya'll, it is totally nuts that there are people out there who still claim that women who stay home have forfeited their capacity for a vibrant intellectual life.  Are you kidding me. The way to dull the life of the mind is not to sit around with the most important people in your life, your own little brain, all your hopes and dreams about your offsprings' futures, and just a few anxieties about how you might inadverdently already be failing them in some way.  So I get a little riled up when I hear talk about women choosing a life of domesticity "instead of" an intellectual one.  Give me a break, have you tried this?

See, here's the thing: peace of mind is essential for good parenting.  There is more than enough nonsense, inside the brain and out, in need of sorting, labeling, quieting. 

Where devotion to reading, work, faith, friends, exercise or entertainment serves to create a still and peaceful parental mind, children will benefit.  Unfortunately for the lazy-minded, there is no magic recipe and it is a lot of work

Did you notice I said "parental?"  Yes, this applies to women as much as to men.  A man who cares about whether he is being a nurturing and kind father does not brood over his professional failures as much as his personal ones.  A thoughtful woman, whether or not she is invested in a so-called public career, might think very often about the progress she is making toward being a patient and consistent presence for her children.  Conquering her own quick temper just might be a greater victory than the PhD she dreamed of in an earlier phase of life.

And that requires plenty of intellectual, physical and spiritual engagement. 

Still, there might be women out there who still cling to some stubborn and residual childhood immaturity.  A woman like that might just stick out her tongue and make a face at anyone who tries to argue about the issue. 

So there.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

other (not-so-light-and-fluffy) stuff I wrote

Living in India has, predictably, prompted plenty of thoughts on poverty & wealth.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), I find that these intersect with reflections on beauty.  Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.  The more Mother Teresa came to know Calcutta's poor, the more convinced she became that each one was "the same beautiful One," in His most "distressing of disguises."  I would like to write a post about that some day (but I will have to get to a place where I understood what she meant first, in order to do that!). 

Anyway, for the sake of an honest documentation of this very slow journey of mine into spiritual understanding, here is my Advent meditation on poverty and beauty in case you missed it, and then I wrote this piece as a guest on Rae's blog in mid-January. 

they're OUR poor

Last Tuesday, I went on a walking tour around one of the city's northside neighborhoods. Our guide was our broker-turned-friend; I'll call him Narayan for the rest of this post. It makes perfect sense that Narayan earns his living helping new arrivals find a place to settle into life in Kolkata because he psychotically loves this city. Jeremy thinks he doesn't know anyone who loves their hometown as much as this guy and I guess I couldn't, either, once I thought about it.

Like most of us who have true and noble passions, Narayan has his blind spots.  One of our group, a Frenchman, asked him about the terrific number of street-dwellers here. "I was here thirty years ago before the Communists governed West Bengal, and now the situation is no better! In fact, I have never seen any Communist society where they fail so monstrously to provide for the basic needs of its people!" Over the roar of the metro (the windows of the trains are always open), I listened to the response, hoping to learn something about local politics in Kolkata or West Bengal, but I was disappointed.

Basically, he gave the standard line that India is a young country, barely 60 years old. "Give us another 60 and we'll rule the world!" he said. Then he talked about the various scientific studies which have shown how, over and over again, when people are taken off the streets and given work—and maybe even a house of their own—they will soon leave it behind and return to their old way of life. He said that people here are proud and they don't want handouts from anyone, including the government. When people in India see how people in some other nations accept housing, food stamps or cash without having to exchange their time or labor, they wonder at it because it seems…well, pathetic. Finally, he said that Kolkata has both rich and poor and invited the Frenchman to see for himself how many Kolkatans enjoy a round of tennis or golf at the exclusive Tollygunge Club.

I could tell that this wasn't the first time "Narayan" was asked to answer for his city's failures, and his defensiveness (if not in tone, then at least in content) spoke to the national embarrassment that is the street-dwelling culture of Kolkata.

The funny thing was, his answer was not particularly Indian. His was a pretty familiar refrain; I have heard the same thing in the United States about our own homeless. They could be earning a living but they choose not to. They could get off the streets, but they don't want to. And while I am sure that there are as many reasons to be homeless as there are homeless people, the truth is, saying that people "choose" to be poor is not really much of an answer. It actually sounds more like an excuse. The line that people feel that accepting free food is undignified, and would prefer to go hungry sounds a little suspicious, at best. And implying that the existence of extremes of both wealth and poverty is somehow proof of a healthy or balanced urban economy is just, um, silly.

Here is an appropriate answer, in my opinion: "Yes, there are several million people in Kolkata who do not have access to clean water or a living wage. There are people whose life expectancies are half of mine who live down the road from me. Children are sold so that parents can afford to eat. And I am not okay with any of this. I am not okay with the fact that the so-called political (or religious, or cultural or economic) machine is so obviously broken, and that wealth distribution is so unequal and that women and children and the ill and elderly suffer the worst in a terrible, unjust, broken system. I don't think anyone can, or should be okay with any of that." That's the real answer, if you ask me. An answer does not need to provide a diagnosis or solution, nor prop itself up with excuses.

It made me think of an online conversation from the previous week in which the author, an American stay-at-home mother, confessed to feeling no small discomfort for living such a privileged life, all the while knowing that there are plenty of others who are much less well-off. Is she really doing enough to ease the sufferings of others? Should she be using her time, money, energy in better ways?

I thought it was an excellent article. Well-written, well thought-out and very (uncomfortably) honest—and on a topic that is a little too rare in that corner of the (American Catholic) blogging community. "Yay!" I thought. "Someone out there has just as much angst as I do!" (and who doesn't love it when they find that…)  Unfortunately, the reader response was disappointingly standard. Although some readers simply wrote in to say that these were good questions and left it at that, more often people tried to soothe the writer's anxiety. Yes, yes, they reassured her, she was in fact "doing enough." What she did, she did well, and that is enough. As if the feelings of compassion (and perhaps the dash of guilt) that prompted her to write such a post were a sufficient demonstration of love for neighbor. (Ahem.)

Maybe I took it a little personally, but I was a little indignant. I started to draft a response. WHY should we believe that since we are given more (materially speaking), that we ought to accept it (as a sign of God's blessing, or whatever)? WHY should we come to terms with the fact that some have plenty when others go without (especially if we are the ones with plenty), and WHO gets to decide if we've done enough?

"The questions you wrote about are good ones and I think some of the comments dismiss them too soon," I was going to say.  I considered writing, for the sake of full and fair disclosure, that my husband is an American doctor (with another masters & advanced training degree) and that this makes him one of the wealthiest and most educated people on our planet right now. It means that our family might never be in (material) need again. I wanted to tell her, and other readers, that instead of making me feel "privileged," I feel more than a little terrified because if it's really impossible for the rich to enter into the Kingdom, then we are going to need a miracle.  I wanted to say that I am not--that I do not want to be--comfortable knowing that I have plenty even though others do not. 

As if my discomfort would provide food or clothing for the Poor.

Mine is not an original post topic (regardless of how rare in certain blogging circles).  And neither are the questions and the realities of wealth disparities uniquely Indian.  We all live in countries where those in power continually face opportunities to profit at the expense of the people. But for heaven's sake don't make allowances for corruption or greed. It is just plain ugly, no matter how proud you are of your beautiful homeland.  And those of us who happen to be among the few in the world to enjoy clean water, good medicines and a balanced diet (if we can ever get over our addiction to chocolate as a legitimate "vegetable" side) had better work hard to stay honest and not let ourselves off the hook too early.

(More to come about privilege and wealth and I hope to write a piece about Mother Teresa soon, too!  Please don't give up me yet, folks.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

another thing I didn't know

I bought these cute little tiny bananas the other day.

I sliced them up and put them in my oatmeal, but it didn't quite taste right.  I told my housekeeper that they tasted kind of different.  She said "Yes, those are puja bananas."  Puja? I thought.  I know that word, but doesn't it have to do with Hindu prayers, or something? 
She clarified: people don't usually eat these; this kind of banana is given as an offering at the temple. 

Sigh.  Sadly, I could write dozens of posts with the same title...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

no time for my own post today

I had been hoping to start a series on what stay-at-home motherhood has meant to me (as a response to an online conversation I followed earlier this week).  Maybe I will still tackle that at some future date, but in the meantime, Betty Duffy has said it so well. 
The last few sentences, especially, so be sure to read to the end.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

light and fluffy

Living out of suitcases for a year has the same effect on a family as taking a long road trip in a car with finicky A/C.  The cool and comfortable hours are quickly forgotten during the sticky, baking ones.  And everyone in the car takes a turn completely losing their minds and picking fights about any little thing.

Like whose turn it is on the laptop.  Jeremy does work and fun on it, and so do I, and we both like to sleep during the nighttime hours these days (see? another reason to love shift work!).  The kids barely get to touch the thing now.  But Sir really does understand my need to think in writing and to do that thinking alongside friends, so I have his blessing to hoard the keyboard a little bit more than I already do to indulge this new blogging hobby.

Speaking of friends, I might have made a new one this morning.  Her name is Cindy and she's from Canada.  She and her husband brought their sons for a visit to their grandparents.  Her husband grew up in this city, but this is only her fourth or fifth visit, and she is very matter-of-fact about the things she enjoys and those she doesn't.  She says she feels like she's in a minimum-security prison here in our complex.  She says that she really wants to visit the Mother Teresa House while she is here, but that it is unlikely that she'll be able to do so.  Getting around town by cab or driver, she feels, and through the traffic is just excruciating, especially with small children and so it is easier to just stay home although she feels trapped.

It was good to hear someone else say it.  We invested in a stationary bike about a month ago because we were going a little nuts without any exercise at all.  There is simply nowhere at all to go for a jog, or even a nice walk.  Sure, I can do laps around our complex, but I have to be ready to shut out the stares of idle drivers-on-call and to ignore the honking cars (Cindy's husband told me that it is considered polite to honk here and that explains a lot). 

Vising the Mother House is something I, too, would like to do more often. On Monday, I finally pushed myself out the door to go sign up to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity.  It is something I have wanted to do all along, but there is no good time and no good way to do it.  I can't explain it very well, but it is basically what Cindy is talking about: the combination of caring for kids and the amount of courage that is necessary to step outside.  Oh, and I don't know the way to their registration site, so I'd have to communicate that to the cabbie somehow.  I figured we might get lost, or show up late, or something else might go wrong, but I was still willing to give it a try at least, and that was a huge victory in itself. 

So, yes, the battle with with culture shock goes on.  I mentioned how rotten it has been for me in that post.  The part where you find yourself criticizing the host country and idealizing your own are not the most difficult parts. I have those feelings, but I can talk my way out or around them pretty easily.  The harder ones are the "easily irritated or annoyed" part, and the "fear of being a victim of crime or disease or accident" part.  Some of you may remember that during my visit here five years ago I suffered a combination of anti-malarial/pregnancy-induced insomnia that meant endless nighttime hours of fretting.  Would my unvaccinated one year-old contract typhoid?  Malaria?  Both?  Turns out that is classic symptom of culture shock.  Which is not to say it is irrational: India has the highest traffic mortality rate on the planet.  So I'm not totally nuts to be worried every time we get in a car; I'm just being a mom.  Sort of. 

But like I said, the grandparents don't want to hear this stuff and so the other blog will stay "light and fluffy," but still honest (I think.  Mostly.).  This one will get some of the other nonsense that occasionally leaks out.  So you have been duly and fairly warned.

On the other hand, I seem to have plenty to say about boobs...  

Monday, February 7, 2011

this post has nothing to do with breasts.

I dare you to do this.

how do you...?

I chose the name for this blog because there are so very many things I do not know or understand about India.  I'm pretty sure that "hindi nayhee" means "No Hindi" but since I don't speak it, I guess I don't know for sure.  One thing is certain: there will be a lot of things I get wrong on this site and I am open to corrections and clarifications from cultural experts.  It seems like there is an ever-growing list in my mind of questions I would ask a cultural informant (if I ever got lucky enough to get one of those), so I welcome input.

Television is a big help in the meantime.  I saw an ad the other day for some kind of baby product or something, and during the ad they showed a close-up of a woman breastfeeding in a sari, kind of like this.  I always wondered how one did that, because a salwar kameez seems entirely impractical for that purpose.  How brilliant is it to have a short top that's easy to pull up along with a built-in nursing cover!  I love it.

(Now, if I could just get someone to explain why kissing is censored, but it is appropriate to show under a woman's shirt on TV here...)

dupatta modesty

Some women opt to wear salwar kameez instead of saris.  In some ways, they are more practical.  Except for the matter of the dupatta.  These are the long scarf thingies that are pretty much mandatory if you want to be proper and modest.  But they are constantly slipping down or off and women have to readjust them all the time.  And if you are carrying a baby or toddler around, chances are, she's either yanking it off or trying to choke you to death with it.

I think the idea behind the dupatta is that it provides an extra covering for a woman's upper body.  There are many ways to wear them, and even just slung high around the neck is considered appropriate, from what I have observed.  This strikes me as strange because they is no actual "covering up" that is happening, as in this method, but I guess that is irrelevant...?  There are all kinds of ways to wear it, though: like this, or like this, or this, or any number of other ways

It seems that the general principle is simply that the outfit is not complete (and a woman is not modest) unless one is wearing a dupatta, but that otherwise the rules are pretty loose. This method is the one that cracks me up every time, though.  If nothing else, wearing a dupatta is certainly calling attention to a woman's chest.  To me, it's almost the equivalent of a huge sign around a woman's neck that is screaming, "Don't look, but there are BOOBS under here!"

better late...?

It took me a full month to go out on my own in Kolkata.  I remember feeling proud, and extremely terrified, on that first cab ride.  It's kind of the same feeling now, but I'm getting better at doing reckless and stupid things.  (Cab rides in India will do that to you, but don't tell my kids' grandparents that.  It's better to blog in a different place where they won't find that kind of stuff out, shh...)

Anyway, two and a half months after arriving, maybe I'm finally ready to step out alone and write now and then.