January 24th marks the six-month anniversary of my arrival in Chennai. If I was truly in the spirit of India, I’d take the day off and burn all sorts of materials in honor of the occasion. Unfortunately, I need to go to work. I’ll let this post be my virtual puja, and I’ll make it concise. A short list of the important things I’ve learned in my six months on this wonderful subcontinent:
1. Take the antibiotics.
2. Car horns should be used in a call-and-response technique: you hear a horn, you honk your horn.
3. You always have the right of way. Always.
4. The next holiday is the biggest one of the year. Until the one after that.
5. India’s time is more important than your time. No exceptions.
6. Everything is paradoxical, i.e. everyone is in a hurry, and nothing starts on time.
7. Dance. Indians love it. It’s just better if you do, too.
I have brunch on Saturdays with a new but close friend of mine here in Chennai. I’ll call him J here. J and I connect about a variety of things when we hang out, but there’s a constant theme that emerges each Saturday of the desire for personal improvement. For each of us, the move to Chennai was about inviting change into our lives and fully embracing that new energy. Both of us thinks it is important to establish here regular practices that invite more richness and opportunities for reflection into our lives. So, in partnership with J, we’ve borrowed several pages from Ben Franklin’s guide to life and are setting off in 2014 to live according to his 13 virtues.
Franklin established his thirteen virtues as a way to shape his life in pursuit of excellence while achieving balance and moderation. While he practiced all of them concurrently, J and I will focus on practicing one per week for the next year. It starts with Temperance: eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation. The next one was Silence: speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. For me, these weeks were amazing.
During the Temperance week I was quickly aware of the challenge I faced: food. Despite not missing more than perhaps a dozen or so meals in my life, and never more than one in a row, I grew up thinking I had to eat as much as possible because I didn’t know when the next round of food would turn up. Not drinking is easy for me because I can think about alcohol as a special occasion sort of thing, but I eat at least three times a day. I was concerned at first, but I was doing great. I even recognized quickly how eating less at certain points in the day resulted in more energy at other times. “Hey, I like this,” I thought.
Then came Wednesday.
On Wednesday I decided that I needed to let go of something that I’d been holding onto tightly for a long time, and it was hindering me in a couple of noticeable ways that I couldn’t avoid any longer. I decided it was time to let it go, and I figured I needed to be somewhat ritualistic about it: I wrote a letter, reworked it a few times to get it just right, and symbolically put it out there. Although I didn’t like it one bit, I noticed a release. That night, I wanted to eat the world. Hello Temperance!
I was feeling lots of emotions, and I wanted to cover them up with delicious little (and big) bits of something that would make me feel better. Yikes. I don’t know if I’d have recognized all this if I hadn’t been following Franklin’s lead. Upon further reflection, it turns out that food is a crutch I’ve used more than I realized. This was an keen awareness to notice and feel in real time and to see in retrospect.
The weekend came, and the next up on the virtue list was Silence. I was slightly uneasy on the onset of this virtue of the week because I already knew that one of the few things I do more than eat is talk. The week was indeed a struggle — I constantly second-guessed myself about what I was saying. One example comes from a meeting I was in late in the week where I was evaluating a process at my school that involves both teachers and students, and I felt challenged in a moment I wouldn’t have even thought about previously. Normally, I’d strike like a lightning bolt at the main issues; this time I had to evaluate carefully what I wanted to say and whether it was going to benefit myself or others. I paused a long time — enough for the storm of thoughts to smooth out a bit in my mind. I’m still not sure if I got on the right side of Silence in that conversation, but a new pathway was formed, at least partially, last week.
I’m just over two weeks into this, but here’s what comes to mind right now: Franklin’s virtues were about striving for moderation. While I knew moderation was his goal coming into this practice, what I’m now feeling quite acutely is that moderation requires a level of mindfulness — constant mindfulness, in fact — that I’d completely underestimated. I’m someone who meditates a lot, I’ve been on a couple of lengthy silent retreats, and I even once traveled to other countries seeking meditation practices. I thought I was dialed into mindfulness. Following Franklin has invited a “walking consciousness” that I hadn’t expected when I started with this experience. One virtue a week has seemed to sharpen my awareness to little moments in real time where the shifting is occurring. Little moments, but the impact is anything but small. And as an added benefit, at the end of the week, I don’t want to let go of the previous week’s virtue. They naturally build on each other and stick around. That Franklin was onto something.
On New Year’s Day, my dad, my brother, and I launched Telemachus, a 17 foot bay kayak in Mission Bay, San Diego. We, with help from my grandfather, built this boat over the course of the past three years.
Telemachus’ namesake is the son of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. He gets forgotten about a lot, but his story is important. The Odyssey is usually remembered the epic as the story of Odysseus’ return home to Ithaca. It’s easy to forget that it begins with Telemachus’s journey to find his father, a man Telemachus has always heard about, but never met. He outfits a ship and sets sail seeking answers.. Sometimes Telemachus’s journey, catalogued in the first three books of the story, is called the “Telemetry.”
Telemetry is usually associated with space exploration in modern western culture — it loosely translates to something like “collecting data or information from remote places.” A more literal translation of the Greek roots comes out as “far from war.” Both are fitting: Telemachus grew up during the time of Trojan War, but he was just a boy during all of the fighting that took place so far away from his home, where he lived with his mother — both waiting for Odysseus to return. Telemachus attempts to live up to the honor of Odysseus, and his grandfather, Laertes — two icons of strength and achievement in the Argive world. Telemachus’ journey is ostensibly to find his father, but it’s also to discover himself. I wonder if he knew he was searching for his own identity when he set sail, or if he imagined his journey would change him forever.
The story of Telemachus the kayak is not nearly as dramatic in reputation and action, but it served a similarly defining purpose for me. I named it specifically to evoke the context of the right of passage that comes from learning more about one’s patriarchs, and thereby, learning about oneself. Originally seen as a cool project for father and sons, this boat quickly emerged as an important symbol. It is the only project that had three generations of Ransons working on it, my grandfather, my father, my brother, and all had a role in turning this pile of materials into a swift-hulled boat.
Telemachus took a long time to complete, sort of like how long it took Telemachus to seek his father in the story. There were successes and setbacks around each turn. The additional time was in the end a gift, for it offered more opportunity for connection and time with each other than was originally planned. The accidental developments in the end were the most valuable parts. The boat is beautiful, and it handles so smoothly in the water. We’re all proud of the work we did, happy the way it turned out. I’m most pleased though that I get to say, “I worked on that with my dad, my grandpa, and my brother..”
Telemachus set out to discover what happened to his father, and in the end he found himself. That’s just how it goes.