Friday, May 20, 2011

Culture shock, intense emotions, and close encounters with death and life. An Easter season post.

I have been trying to figure out what to tell family and friends now that I am home again after months abroad.  I wrote several different posts and what follows is kind of a combination of a few.  (Btw: if you think this post is long, try living in Calcutta for four months.)

 I like jogging.  I never knew this until after my youngest was born.  To get in shape, I started out slow and then, before I knew it, I was training for my first (and only) long race.  I made Jeremy run with me for 13.1 miles in San Diego's August heat and we actually finished.  I was proud of what my body was capable of, but I wondered if this was pushing too hard.  By the end, every step was excruciating, I almost fainted at the finish line and my knees don't handle hills too well.  Maybe six miles is more reasonable, and healthier?  I wondered.  Yes, my body was ready and able to finish, my lungs and muscles were conditioned, but 10K races are probably going to be the most intense ones I will want to tackle in the future.  
There was no jogging for me while in India for a lot of reasons (what's a sidewalk?) and so, during our European stopover, at the first chance I got out on a trail.  Not only are there sidewalks in Austria, but bike and jogging paths alongside creeks and rivers!  And then, instead of happily huffing along in company of Bono and Kyra Dawson, I broke down crying.
In part, it was out of relief.  Relieved to be out of Asia, out of stinky, steamy Calcutta-in-April and the feeling of trying to keep moving, the feeling of being under that summer morning sun again and trying to pull myself uphill at the 10th mile, with 3.1 more to go.  I was sick of wondering if it broke me down or made me stronger (whatever that means).  All those moments when I didn't know if was going to make it (and worse, the fear that it wouldn't be worth it after all the tears and snot and sweaty sweat) had left me exhausted.   There were plenty of tears while in Calcutta.  Homesickness, fury at injustice, my dear friend PMS (she follows me everywhere, that b*$#!), and later, contrition.  The whole range of human emotion, only magnified because it's all new and because it's hard to be away from home.  But in Austria I cried because even though so much had changed since the last time I had heard these songs or pounded along a jogging path in running shoes, it still all felt so familiar.
Yesterday I came across this post by a friend who has been in India one year and is staying on a few months longer:  

There is so much about India that I don't know and never will.  Expats here either love it or hate it.  People pay tons of money to come to this spiritual land to 'find themselves'.  And I'm here.  Living it.  Doing it.  But I don't feel the least bit enlightened.  Grown, sure but not enlightened.  I am in awe.  I am in disgust.  I am ambivalent.  I am inspired.  I am pissed.  I don't care.  I want more.  There was life before India, which was easy and I knew how to do it.  Then there is life in India and instead of resisting it I am learning to let go and be a part of it.  No matter how you look at it, India changes you.  She breaks you down and makes you learn another way and I'm just trusting the experience....however hellish it might feel sometimes. [...] You discover who you are when you're real far from home.  Love it or hate it.  
Our time in India was different from what I thought it would be.  It was much worse. I expected regular bouts of diarrhea and battles with nasty critters.  I expected adventure—you know, the exciting kind.  But in the end it was fairly uneventful and that was the killer.  My husband got to do the "fun" stuff—working in a hospital and being on the so-called front lines.  I did…nothing much.  It was hard enough to care for and homeschool the kids, to get to and from a shopping center, a bookstore, to a friend's home or to church.  One outing a day was already too much so we stayed home a lot.  Remember that post where I mentioned my trip downtown to register to volunteer with the MCs?  Yeah, well, I didn't know the way to their site and I wandered the streets for awhile after the cabbie dropped me off in the wrong spot, and it was about a gazillion degrees and when I got there they had cancelled registration for the day because of a funeral. 
Speaking of funerals.  Calcutta definitely lives up to her reputation—brutal, inhospitable and, if you are in denial about your mortality, only too willing to help you get in touch with it.  Narayan (the friend I told you about in this post) told me this was the reason for publicly processing the bodies of the dead—so that people would become comfortable with the idea of death.  "We must embrace both life and death," he said.  But I am not at all comfortable with death and so I was completely at a loss what to do when, one winter’s evening during rush hour, our taxicab ended up wedged up against a hearse with an all-glass cover.  There was a cloth draped over the body, but they made sure to keep the face uncovered and magnificently well illuminated so that everyone could clearly see in without having to strain their eyes. 
My son: “Uh, is that man dead, Mom? I think he is.  Yup, he looks dead alright.”  He was three and completely undisturbed by the scene; just a little curious.
Me: “Oh yeah?  You think so?  Hmm…” which is what I usually say when I don’t want to give a direct answer or when I don’t know what to say.  This isn’t normal.  This is so not normal!  
In the ER, my husband sees death regularly.  Sometimes he is shocked by it, and sometimes he is not.  Sometimes he helps relatives with difficult decisions to remove life support from elderly patients who will never recover their natural ability to breathe unassisted and other times he fights desperately for lives that threaten to end too early or abruptly.  I like to think that I help him do his work and that I am equally helpful those nights (or mornings) when he comes home and needs to sit and think and talk and sort it all out.  Usually, though, I end up blurting out that it's a good thing he does the job because not all of us can, nor do we even want to.  Which is basically the equivalent of a pat on the back and a "Hey, good luck with that."

 I feel the same way Churchill did about the suffering masses of Calcutta, and usually about the suffering masses in any place.  I can't handle it.  Nothing in my life has prepared me for this, I think, for the ten thousandth time since my plane touched down.  So can I leave soon, please?  

One morning, during our first week in Calcutta, I went to the early Mass at the Mother House.  Well, for the nuns it probably seemed early, but I had been up since 2am with jetlagged children, so that makes me pretty hardcore, don’t you think?  Truth is, I never feel as useless and frail as I do when I go to India.  Whatever the opposite of hardcore is, that’s what I feel like.  There must be a word for that…hmm…what is that word?  Oh yeah: wimpy.  India makes me feel like the world’s premier wimp.  Wimp-o Numero Uno.  Le Plus Grand Wimp du Monde, as the French say.  (No they don't.) 

What’s even worse: I don't have the strength to care because I am too busy trying to figure out how to keep the kids and myself safe and alive.  Also, I keep busy wondering why I am the only one who seems worried because there is Jeremy, acting like everything is normal!  He has spent more time in India than I have and he is more familiar with human disease and decay.  It could also be that he is just plain tougher and he can handle more, and in higher doses.  Or maybe because he is a dude.  I have no idea.  Other American moms in Calcutta often had the same deer-in-the-headlights look that I did, so maybe it's a guy thing. 

In the days before we left India, as a mental exercise, I tried to anticipate how it would feel to be home and how I would look back on the time in Asia.  In my journal, there is an entry from just before our departure in which I lamented the absence of any feeling of satisfaction for a job well done.  Instead, I was disgusted with myself for feeling relieved that I get to leave and return to a better, more comfortable and safer place, even if others do not and even though I hadn't accomplished anything.  "Maybe it is appropriate," I wrote, "that I won't end my time here on a note of triumph—this city rarely allows those.  If you escape, or survive, with your health and property mostly unharmed, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones."  (Calcutta brings out the Serious in me.)
This year my Lent began in Calcutta, which I guess was also appropriate.  Suffering and death, life and redemption—all up in my face, all at once, as soon as the plane reached the gate.  Like it or not.  That Easter arrived the day before we landed on U.S. soil could have been a metaphor for something (a new season, at the very least), but instead I seem to be stuck in Lent.  Apparently, the period of sorrowful penance is not over for me yet.  My sacrificial gift an especially ugly and humiliating one: fragility, incompetence, guilt and regret for what I did not do and for what I cannot do. 
My grief is partly intentional.  This way I can nobly go on mourning with those who mourn and deliciously wallow in the self-reproach of past personal failings and present inadequacies.  (“See?  I am such an especially bad person!  Poor me!”)  And I become one of Those Others Out There I used to ridicule who come home from their few weeks in the developing world convinced that they have encountered True Suffering and now understand What The World is Really Like.  (“Oh no, now I am just like everyone else!  Poor me!”)
Culture shock, at least in my experience, plays similar mind games. It is a battle of confronting, and then trying to contend, with perceived extremes. It is tempting to label everything and start to rank them into two distinct columns of "foreign" or "familiar."  We travelers to Calcutta insist that the scale of human suffering there is worse than in other places, and certainly, it may be more concentrated than in most other places in the world.  India does hold one sixth of the planet’s population, after all.  The causes are less clear, and the boundaries between structural, systemic injustice and individual wrongdoing are as gray as in any other place.  Do desperate and degenerate people go to any length to survive?  Or does the System keep people down and ensure that they will become lawbreakers?  Same diff?   The borders between inner or exterior poverty are just as unclear to me now. 
Honestly, despite all the anxiety and guilt it has provoked, I am thankful that I have been in one of the poorest places in the world as a visitor from one of the wealthiest.  The intensities of “foreign” and “familiar” are less overwhelming after awhile.  What I thought was so strange and unique in Calcutta is, I suspect, a state of being so closely shared by us all that it was unrecognizable.  Unfamiliar and strange to me because I couldn’t ever step back far enough to be able to see, in myself, the same ugliness and destitution. 
Over and over again, during those four months, I found myself questioning Mother Teresa’s view that it was Jesus Himself who was clothed in rags and walking these filthy, sewage littered streets—that it was Jesus in disguise, uniting himself with people who would do anything, anything to stay alive or profit off of those more vulnerable than themselves.  How?  How could He bear to go so low?

A question only someone so out-of-touch with her own spiritual poverty could ask. 
Yesterday I had lunch with an old friend.  We lost touch about a dozen years ago a continent and an ocean away, and right now she lives only twelve miles from me.  She asked me, as I knew she would, what it was really like for us in India (the reports I'd sent back were obviously edited for concerned grandparents and for the sake of my own survival).  I was worried about how to answer because being truthful and preserving happy memories is tricky sometimes. "It was really good," I said, "and hard." 
Yup, that about sums it up.
The lighted hearse, and my revulsion to it, might end up being more powerful than I first understood.  Four months in India, like the half marathon, kicked my butt.  With both, the feeling is more of defeat than victorious elation.  It just doesn't seem healthy or normal to embrace death as much as life and it even seems wrong.  Because death is a distortion of the natural order and things are not as they were originally intended to be, right?   This is not normal!  I want to keep screaming. 
Aren't suffering and even death, as tragic and terrible as they are, supposed to be only temporary realities of the human condition?  There's something about that somewhere in the Catechism, probably.   Can't we skip over them, get to the good part a bit faster, sooner?  Then again, death turned into life, penitence transformed into love, and suffering into sanctification—these also are realities.  The real way to Christ is a share, however small, in that Passion that was so very real.  And the final reality?  That's the big one: Christ is Risen.

1 comment:

  1. Don't really have a lot of comments, except to say that this was a good, good post. A good insight into your time for the rest of us.