A few thoughts about my first triathlon.
I’ve been wanting to do a tri for at least a decade. There aren’t that many things that I’ve yearned for and haven’t done, so the emotions of finally doing it snuck up on me. The whole weekend felt like I was one moment away from overflow.
I had two goals: to enjoy the race while it was happening, and to finish injury free.
I trained a lot, but on the morning of the race I was still shaking in my Lycra, not thinking I could do it. This feeling was accelerated by my own misjudgment of distance. There was a shorter tri that started just before the start to my race. As I stood at the water’s edge, looking out at the marker-boats, I said something to one of the four friends who did the race with me about how fast the swim would be for us. One of them looked at me and said, “You know the blue boats are for the Super Sprint, right? The red boats are for us.” I looked again. I saw the blue boats. Then I scanned the horizon for other shapes and colors. The red boats might as well have been in Africa for how far away they looked. I thought “I can’t do this,” and spent the next 20 minutes mentally wrestling with that one.
Five minutes into the race, I was still psyched out. I even wondered if they would let me just do the bike and run portions for fun if I was DQ’d. Amidst this internal maelstrom, I noticed that when I breathed on my left side I could see the sun rising over the hills and trees beyond the shoreline. The orange and yellow ribbons spreading across the sky brought me back into myself. I remembered that I was supposed to enjoy it while it was happening, and here I had this great view of the sunrise from the water. So I kept swimming.
I learned several valuable lessons in this process. One is that my body really likes the “brick” workouts — putting two phases of the race together in one workout. For example, following a swim with a run made me feel energized and alert like few other things I’ve done. I look forward to these invigorating workouts now.
I also learned from one of my training friends, the mantra “no pain, no pain.” If it hurts, stop. Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t think I need to make that any clearer, but still, it was a revelation.
My favorite lesson is perhaps that if you want to do a triathlon, you need to sign up for a triathlon. It took me more than a decade to put this one together.
I cheered for lots of strangers while I was biking and running, and that felt good, which helped me enjoy the race while it was happening. There were also four other friends with me in the race, and each time we saw each other we traded inside jokes, rallying cries, and motivational aphorisms. I loved this part of the experience.
I loved the absence of competitive acrimony that accompanies the team competitions that have been so familiar and detestable over the years. I’ve been around a lot of competitions at all levels, and the part I detest is the assholic behavior that often emerges during the quest to find that winning edge. During this race, competitive juices were flowing, but so was the mutual support among those in the race. As a first-timer, racing in a country that is not my own, I felt like I was part of the group.
Overall, I’m proud of myself for doing this — the swim was daunting, and I worked on it. The heat was a challenge, and I dealt with it. The logistics of transportation, transition, and training were overwhelming at times, and I worked on a little at a time plus got help when I needed it. I met my goals and felt great along the way. I’m glad I tri-ed it.
Over the past eighteen months I have felt the urge to write gushingly about Rumi. I have chosen not to for fear of sounding like the latest person to learn of the Good News – talking to others as though I’m the only one who has heard of it. There have been a few moments where something has squirted out on social media: a couple of posts on other social media, even a fragment referenced on this blog. I come by the enthusiasm honestly. I have been reading a poem each morning to my wife over the past year and half from a large compilation of Rumi’s work. If you’ve read his work before, you might appreciate his nuanced awareness of our world, which is quite a feat considering how long ago he lived. In short, I’m a fan. Because I’m reading one a day, and not necessarily studying his work, I can be moved at breakfast, but forget the image or the phrasing that I liked so much by lunch time.
But then, every so often something grabs ahold of me for a longer stretch. I’m feeling that stretch at the moment. He wrote something that’s gotten inside and given me a good shake. Last week, I read “These Decisions.” It goes:
The old argument continues about fate and free will with
the king and his advisors
talking. The king rebuts their contention that all actions
are predestined. “But
surely we must be responsible for what we do! Why else
would Adam admit guilt?
Rather, he would have used Satan’s answer, You led me
astray. Adam did have a
choice.” Yet somehow both are true, destiny and free will.
We vacillate between
Journeys. Shall we go to Mosul for trade or Babylon to
learn occult science?
These decisions are real. One person drinks a lot of wine.
Does someone else wake up
nauseated? When you work all day, you get the wages. A
child born from your soul
and body holds on to your legs. When has it been otherwise?
And if the consequences fail
to show up here, be sure they have taken form in the unseen.
I have spent a lot of time talking with young people about fate and free will. I don’t pretend to know more than anyone else about where one starts and the other stops. I do know that the evidence of one, looked at from another perspective, sure looks like it’s opposite. I know that me getting to India was the result of one good decision after another. I also see quite clearly that it has been my fate to live here. I suppose the real challenge to the tension between these two ideas comes as we try to interact with other people. Maybe it’s that their fate and their free wills run into us and it just gets messy.
I went to a professional training since reading this poem where an idea was kicked around that the world is full of chaos and order. Furthermore, our work, professional and personal, is to hold both of those forces simultaneously. Perhaps you make peace with them, metaphorically pushing your hands closer together until your fingers intertwine. Or maybe, you need to hold them apart, like warring children you grab by the collar of the shirt to keep them just far enough away from you and each other to not cause more trouble.
Maybe fate has in fact put us all here. Our choices, then, more than anything else, may determine how long we last and how many others we pass the time with. A radical and yet subtle idea is embedded here: It’s not what we know that makes us special to others; instead, it is how we are with one another.
I’m still adjusting to my international life, and my process of adjustment often brings me to wonder “How did I get here?” Typically, it comes from a place of gratitude and awareness of unearned luck. I found myself wrestling with those feelings and that question several times recently in Vietnam.
The first time the question barged into my mind I was standing outside the Maison Centrale in Hanoi. This is the location of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” — the prison where American pilots who had been shot down during the American war in Vietnam were held as POWs. Perhaps the most famous of these pilots was John McCain, whom I saw speak in person in 2002. Sitting twenty feet from the stage where he stood, it was clear that his awkward body movements show the remnants of the beatings he took in that prison. Another famous inmate here, James Stockdale, came to mind as I stood outside the wall of the prison-turned-museum. Stockdale went on to become an Admiral in the US Navy, and when he died in 2005 he was buried at the Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland, near where one of my friends is buried.
Last summer I went to visit my friend’s grave. The cemetery is on a hill, and my friend’s grave is down a bit from the crest of that hill. After sitting for a time at his grave, my wife and I walked to the top of the hill to take in the view of the Severn River. There we encountered a couple who stopped to ask us if we knew where Stockdale was buried. We chatted for a moment, long enough for the man to tell us he’d served under Stockdale and looked up to him. He didn’t know the man personally, but felt compelled to pay his respects during their limited time in town. This exchange flashed into my mind as I stood outside the wall of the old prison. I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter.
I felt in the moment that the memories I was having were somehow strange. I’ve not thought about James Stockdale probably more than six times in my life, and yet what occurred to me is how many people could there be in the world who have been to the place where he was held captive for seven years and the place where he is buried? And among that group, how many have been in these two places a world apart in the same year? It didn’t feel exactly like a coincidence, but I don’t know what else to call it.
I almost didn’t go in the museum. This prison was operational as a place of great suffering for decades — Stockdale and McCain are two well-known figures who survived it. There are dozens more names listed inside of Vietnamese freedom fighters who died at the hands of the French in the six decades it served as a center where interrogations, torture, and executions were routine. I know a bit about Vietnam’s history, enough to know that I didn’t have to go inside this museum to be aware of the complexity of what’s happened here, or of how American involvement in this country contributed to the suffering of all who were touched by that involvement. I stood in the street for a time, wondering if I’d regret going inside, wondering if I’d regret not going in, wondering if it mattered one way or the other.
I ended up going inside, and as I anticipated, the visit was upsetting. Great suffering occurred here — conveying that point is the purpose of the museum displays, but I think I would have felt that if the rooms were empty of all artifacts and testaments. This building alone is a symbol of strife: Vietnamese are likely to see this place as a representation of colonialist oppression — the French built it as a place to severely punish those who rebelled against their colonial rule. Americans can easily see the building as a sign of the most upsetting and defining event in American history since the Civil War.
The yellow walls just stand there though, out of place in this current context. It’s a tidy museum now. There’s a hotel high rise where there central prison courtyard once existed. Two blocks away from this location is the Hanoi Rolls Royce dealership. Walk in the other direction for 15 minutes and you’ll encounter cute coffee shops and outdoor Bun Cha lunch spots — all of these are symbols of a prospering Vietnamese economy. It might be easy to roam around the city as a tourist only thinking of the cheap food and drink to be had. I look through my photos of my week here, most are of happy moments of communing with my friends over a rich cup of coffee or breaking bread (well, noodles) together, and exploring a place I’d only read war-torn descriptions about. But there’s also this simple wall and the brief memorials behind it.
This wall, this building, feels out of place to me. Maybe I’m the one that’s out of place. Life, or is it just time, goes on, although for many in this prison, life ended here. For those who survived it, time may have felt like it stood still. I wonder how many of those imprisoned here asked themselves this same question: “How did I get here?”
and the personality form a cup.
You meet someone, and something is poured in.”
Three years ago, on the afternoon before school started, my wife and I (before we were married, before we were anything but same-aged colleagues to each other) happened to visit a prominent temple. It almost didn’t happen. We’d made plans to go to the new mall, but when we met at the end of the day, the mall was the last place either of us wanted to go. I don’t remember who suggested Kapaleeswarar Temple, but we agreed quickly and hopped in a tuk-tuk together. We had a lovely time that night. Each of us was struck by the unfamiliar appeal of the temple and the people in it. We didn’t get together as a couple for another seven months, and once we did that evening at the temple suddenly held much more meaning. At the end of the school year we went again, and I remember feeling compelled to propose to her there. We have come back to this place at the start of each year — tonight marks the fourth school-eve trip. While the temple itself is not a mystery to us in the same way, I found myself thinking on the way there tonight how strange it is that a visit here three years ago, that was not planned and nearly did not happen, could take on such meaning.
It’s a day full of meaning on other levels, too. It’s my brother’s birthday. I have not lived near my brother for more than 15 years now, but I’ve usually been around for his birthday. I typically timed my trips home to coincide with his celebrations. This year, I’m feeling especially nostalgic. I remember the day he was born quite vividly, and a couple days later when I met him for the first time. Except for his wife, I consider myself his biggest fan (and there are a lot of his fans). I know that my sentimentality is intensified by the fact that less than a month ago he and his wife had a baby — my first nephew on my side of my family. Luckily, I was there for that birthday, and I spent some quality time holding that little guy, getting my baby whispering in before I had to return to India. When I left I felt, for the first time, that I would certainly be missing something while I was gone. So I’m wrapped up in a lot tonight — remembering my brother and his new family, cherishing the newness in my own life that already feels so familiar that it is difficult to remember when it wasn’t here. These are blessed times.
Additionally, I start a new job tomorrow. Technically, I have been working for nearly three weeks in the new position, but tomorrow is my first day of school with real-live students everywhere. It’s actually two new positions — an entry-level leadership position and a teaching role that is new to me. These are the third and fourth different positions that I’ve had in the three years I have been here. In the context of my life back in the U.S., that sounds withering and untenable, but here, in a world so full of extremes, it just feels right.
It just feels right . . . the first visit to the temple, my connection to my wife, holding my baby nephew as he slept through his first days of life, sitting in presence with my little brother who is now a dad, moving into new roles at my school — so much, so fast, and it all just feels right. Living so far away from my familiar places is a challenge, but since I have moved here my cup has been filled with nourishment.
When I learned of George Milne’s death last week, I was so stunned I had a hard time catching my breath. I was moments from embarking on an all-day hike & expedition with a bunch of 8th graders on our annual Week Without Walls trip. Mr. Milne was my 8th grade drafting teacher. George was a friend and a colleague I enjoyed talking to when I first started as a substitute teacher.
His passing was sudden and unexpected to me because I only learned he was sick four days before. I last saw him perhaps 16 years ago, but he’d been a consistent presence on my Facebook wall for several years. Then he just went quiet. His daughter posted an update on his wall that he was struggling, and requested messages of love directed to him. I eagerly contributed in a private message, and wondered if I’d hear anything in return. Another update online followed a few days later that included a photo of him and the phrase “cancer sucks!” – the first reference to anything specific about his condition. The final word came just a few days later. I doubt though that more notice would make his passing easier to accept.
Since Tuesday, I have read dozens of testimonials about his gentle and supportive influence from people my age and older; each piece I’ve read has resonated with me, which speaks to his universal appeal to students and adults who knew him as a colleague or member of the community. Gabe Frazee’s account of a very close connection to him rings especially true. So does the story from woman whom I don’t know, who wrote about George being the assistant coach on a travel soccer team she played on when she was an adolescent. What stayed with me is her acknowledgement that he’d had such a lasting impact on her despite very limited contact with him. Both the deep connection and the casual influence echo my experience being around George.
He was my teacher for only one semester in 8th grade, and what I remember from that time is how easy it was to be in his class. Junior high school were unpleasant years for me, but Mr. Milne had a spirit about him that defied the difficulty that I felt during that time. I wasn’t alone. I remember that drafting classroom being packed with those high-top drafting tables – I want to say there were 40 or 50 of them in there – with a student at each desk. It was a classroom in a trailer, and looking back at it, I imagine that George met with the head custodian to measure the room before school started and worked out the maximum number of desks the room could accommodate, then he went to the registrar and sweet talked her and the principal into letting enrollment for the class go as higher and higher. I think my section of drafting was all boys. Thinking about all the characters in my class back then – we were the motley-est group of junior high school twerps you could ever collect in one place. The only thing we had in common was our interest in our teacher – even today if you put us all together he would still probably be the only connection between us. But what a connection. Was there anyone more nimble than he with a pun, or a self-deprecating joke? It was like being in class with a sardonic Santa Claus impersonator who knew you knew the beard was a fake but invited you to play along anyway.
I’m a teacher now, and I distinctly remember the day when I decided that this was my path. I thought very carefully about my Teacher Hall of Fame and wondered if I could be like the people I looked up to. George was there at the top of the list. I remember saying out loud to my traveling companion over omelets in middle-of-nowhere, rural Thailand (that’s where I was when it became crystal clear this was my path) that I wanted to be as easy-going and composed as he was. Everything appeared easy to him, and as a student around him things were easier for me, too. That’s the model I wanted to follow.
Having been in this line of work for a while now, I recognize that George had the gift of including people without ever making it look like he was trying to be inclusive. It just happened. George’s classroom was always inclusive – that’s what drew all those mismatched boys to his drafting elective that I was in decades ago. There are identical descriptions from the girls who played soccer for him, so too the students who had him for history. His colleagues talk about him in the same fashion. He loved teaching, perhaps because it never felt like work for him – I aspire to that level of effortlessness. That gift he gave in abundance to anyone who wanted it.
There’s one specific moment with him that I treasure. In high school, I was apart of state-wide leadership organization outside of school. When I was in college I attended an alumni dinner for that organization, which was being held in a hotel near my college. The alumni event happened at the same location and time as one of the organization’s annual high school leadership conferences. On my way to dinner, I stuck my head into the conference general session, and there was George. He was the advisor that year for San Dieguito’s ASB, and was reveling in all the high school students doing their leadership thing at the conference. We shot the shit, as you do with George, for some time. It was the highlight of the night for me (in fact, I don’t have any memories of the dinner). I mentioned to him how much I enjoyed that drafting class way back at Diegueno Jr High. He lit up with a special smile and said, “Yeah, that was a great class . . . . You want to know how I came to teach it?” Of course I did. It goes like this: He was called into the principal’s office one day, and the principal wanted to ask for a favor from George. There was a need for more electives, and the principal wondered about offering a drafting class (which I believe was not something George had ever taught before). Asking teachers to willingly add more teaching preps to their schedule is the fast track to making enemies at a school, so the principal, George said, was careful in how be proposed the idea and had a well-thought out argument that would appeal to George’s interest in doing what was best for kids. Less than two minutes into the principal’s pitch, George simply said, “Sure. I’ll do it.” The principal had not finished his pitch, but George knew it was a good thing for kids, and he just sorta said yes to things like that. That was it. Just like that, he picked up the class.
I brought this story up a few months ago when I applied for a position at my school that I wanted. The story came to mind because part of the job was only loosely defined, and all of the options for that part of the position were outside of my teaching experience. I invoked this story of George taking up something that was good for kids even if it was outside of his traditional role. I got the job. I don’t know the degree to which this story helped me as a candidate in the eyes of my principal, but to me it mattered a lot. The new position does not start until the Fall, but I know that the newness of that position will change me and the trajectory of my career, just as George’s was changed by his decisions to do things in his own way for others. My hope is that my work will be as meaningful to others as his was to me.
George Milne was a jolly, generous, and gentle man, and offered his gifts to us so freely. He wasn’t quite a giant – too gentle for that – but he was certainly, to borrow one of his favorite jokes – quite tall for his height.
Farewell, Dear George; farewell.
One of the fun parts of living in Chennai is developing an understanding of the various holidays. Mid-January brings Pongal, the celebration of the sun, a winter harvest festival, and a day of giving thanks for agriculture. There’s some ceremony around the year’s first rice crop, and the first batch of cooked rice is eaten auspiciously from a special Pongal jar. Sugar cane is also important — kids are seen chewing it all day long, and people are carrying long stalks of it on their motor bikes and cars off to different celebrations. Pongal-eve, called Bhogi, also is a special day of clearing out and cleaning. Typically old possessions are burned in order to create space for new acquisitions in the new year. Two indicators of these important days are the thick smoke throughout the city in the morning on Bhogi — a demonstration of how much is being burned before dawn — and the multitude of kollams, or elaborate chalk drawings, that women create outside their door steps the morning of Pongal.
There are a lot of festive holidays in Tamil Nadu, all of which offer just as many opportunities to reflect and start anew. This is my third year and my third Pongal, but it is perhaps the first time I’ve understood why we’ve had the day off school and what’s being observed. I’ve come to enjoy the firecracker-filled days of celebration and observance here (whether canonized or not, firecrackers are definitely a part of every Indian holiday), and feel the natural opportunity to reflect. It’s been quite a year.
Last year on Pongol, Susannah & I hosted our first guests as a couple. We were newly married and excited to welcome visitors together. The year was filled with visitors by family and friends alike. All of our parents, save one (we have seven parents and step-parents between us) came to see us in 2015. It’s wonderful to have guests visit our lives here. I’ve learned that a distinct bond develops between me and those who come to see what our lives in Chennai is all about. Visitors develop a visceral comprehension of life here, and the shared experience is so strong that it continues even when the guests return home. The result is a special kind of richness that I feel between me and those who have experienced my life here. It’s not something I ever could have anticipated before I arrived in India, but it’s something I value most about being here.
This rich connection to family and friends became even more important as the past year was highly challenging. Most recently, the epic rain and flooding of Chennai reached a level of intensity I had not lived through previously. In the end, Susannah and I were fine — the roof of our house leaked in a dozen places and the power was out for several days, but some of our colleagues lost everything they owned, or everything on the first floor of their homes. Some evacuated temporarily until repairs could be made; others can never return to where they called home before the storm. Outside of our school community, the monsoon and the human decisions before, during, and after it were devastating. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. Some of the news reports I saw reminded me very acutely of the incompetent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We got lucky by virtue of not living directly in a floodplain, and it’s not like we had that in mind when we were deciding where we might want to live a year ago. We dodged a flood just by dumb luck. I’m grateful for that everyday.
We’ve been unlucky, too — the past year brought to our lives the emotional turmoil of two pregnancies and two miscarriages. I’ve since learned that miscarriage is quite common among couples who want to get pregnant. Fortunately, the friends I have who are part of that club offered counsel and wisdom far beyond my own reasoning just when I needed it most. I also learned that even the most challenging experience a newly-married couple can have was not insurmountable for Susannah & I to cope with — yet more for which to be grateful.
When I look back at my work from the last year — or even the entire time I’ve been here, which is not that much longer — I’m quieted by the number of different things I’ve had the chance to work on. In 2.5 years, the range and depth of initiatives and challenges that have come my way might take a decade or longer to experience in the U.S. My learning curve has been steep — perhaps greater than even the first year of my teaching career — as I’ve tried to keep up with the elusive task of developing new ideas and strategies for teaching such a diverse population of students in a progressive education model. More immediately, I’ve been neck-deep in the question, ‘Why should 8th graders from Korea, Japan, India, and Europe care about American history?’ Some days I have a clear answer; others days I’m much less certain.
Happy Pongal, and, what a year. I’ll worship the sun, as is the custom, for it rises each day over the Bay of Bengal here, offering the nutrients the crops need to thrive. In writing this I recognize that the western calendar has New Year’s as a natural time for reflection. For some reason, I wasn’t ready then. We were traveling then, and perhaps being away from India for that holiday distanced my thinking from my life here. So I’ve taken Pongal’s invitation for reflection, and I’m even grateful for that, too. I’ve accepted a new position at my school that starts in July; part of the deal was I agreed to stay here through 2018. Even though I know we’ll be here another 2.5 years, I’m aware that there will be a time when I don’t live in India any more. It’s strange to think that right now because when you’re in India, it consumes you. It’s hard for me to imagine not living here most of the time. But today, Pongal, has offered me a chance to savor my life here. It’s wonderful. My special Pongal cup is full, not of celebratory rice, but of gratitude.
Social media tells me that back in the U.S. school is starting back up. I just wrapped up the third week of classes here, and for the first time since I have been in India — and, maybe in my career — I was ready for the students to arrive when they walked in the door. At the start of every other year, the time available to get ready and the number of things to do were so great that the first days of school were manic for me.
My Head of School had a lot to do with this: he changed the schedule so we had 40% more days to prep than we did last year, but something else is going on, too. My experience in international education has been synonymous with Great Change — I changed countries, subjects taught (twice), schools (high school to middle school), changed co-teachers three times, and, of course, met my partner, got engaged, and then married. Sheesh . . . that’s an entire career for some — that’s been 23 months for me.
Almost everything I have to say about India to those who do not live here is about the rapid change that exists in this place, and the extreme contrasts that are so abundant. I came here because I wanted a change, and I knew enough about my new home before I arrived to anticipate the contrasts. I did not have an idea, however, of how vivid and personal that change would be, and I certainly did not anticipate ever feeling — dare I say it — comfortable in this maelstrom.
The change itself is not an easy thing to precisely describe or even identify. I know I do not know all there is to know about the kind of instruction we are doing now, or the material I am charged with presenting to my students. I don’t have all the answers to any of the questions that come my way. Despite this, I feel like I know something, yet not everything. The something matters, even if I can’t quite articulate it.
There’s a Cormac McCarthy novel in which a character says that he didn’t realize how heavy one of his burdens was until he finally put it down. I find it difficult precisely to say what it was that I set down, but I know intimately the relief and recognition that the character is describing. Setting something down, feeling the relief of not expending so much energy, and also welcoming in such gratitude at the new-found freedom from that release.
I do know this: this has been a great way to start the new school year.
You can’t argue with crazy, and yet I try to. I try to be right – it’s amazing how important that is to me.
I had an interaction with a crazy parent at work last week, and I’m up early processing it this morning. I don’t like that I’m up at 3am, but I’m trying not to judge myself. I often process this way, but on this particular topic I feel like crazy is winning.
What being up at 3am has helped me see is that I have some old energy that’s stuck in situations like this. In my old school, I had a lot of run-ins with this sort of dynamic – so much so that I earned a unenviable nickname from my closest colleagues. “Lighting Rod” is what they called me – for every bolt of craziness I got zapped with was one less they had to potentially encounter from the same source.
The way that I operated was I would choose to interact with this level of craziness, fearing that others would give credit to the crazy side of the argument. I felt that other side might be deemed credible by my unpredictable bosses. In order to protect myself I thought I had to go into the belly of this crazy-go-nuts beast in order to emerge as Right, or justified. I did something different this time, and it was so unfamiliar that even though I’m reassured I did the right thing, I don’t believe it. I don’t trust the new approach yet.
Engaging with crazy is itself an act of craziness. Someone I think is really wise once told me that in the face of crazy, “No” is a complete sentence. I am not a familiar practitioner of the one-word sentence yet. It might be a while before I get there. You see, I still want to be Right! And, to be honest, I think I also want the craziness to know that I’m Right, too. Man, who do I think I am?
I think I might be crazy.
Susannah and I were married two months ago! She wrote about it beautifully here. I’ve got my own thoughts about the day, that I’ve tried to figure out how to frame without my story turning into an epic poem. This is one chapter.
My wedding day was unique because I felt like everyone else.
I recognize that this is a strange thing to say, especially coming from the West, where your wedding is “your special day.” Traditionally the couple is worshiped through all parts of the production, beginning with the engagement and continuing to the honeymoon. Every moment and experience is a treasure.
As far as unique weddings go, it looked like ours would be the only one of its kind. Even how we got to the wedding was special: Susannah and I met each other as new teachers in our first international school posting. We became fast friends immediately, bonding through our similar experiences in our personal lives and in work back in the U.S.; eventually, we each realized there was more to the other than just a really great friend. Once we figured out there was something more there, things moved quickly. We started dating in March, got engaged in July, and were married in December. India has indeed been magical for us both.
Our wedding planning enhanced the idea that we were truly unique – I was told by someone who knows a thing or two about weddings in Chennai that there is no proof of another expat couple marrying in a Hindu ceremony in the history of this city. (And given the bureaucracy, no one is likely to follow in our footsteps). So, in other words, there’s never been, nor will there ever be again, a wedding like ours. Major unique points for us.
We got hitched in a Hindu wedding hall, down the street from Vadapalani Murugan Temple, in Chennai. Our date was chosen for us by the marriage hall officials – which was a surprise to us. They consulted the almanac for auspicious times and dates, and our date, a Saturday, was simply unacceptable to them. But look! – the previous Wednesday was a very auspicious day. So Wednesday it was. We even got the best time according to the almanac: 9:00am. I don’t know of anyone who got married on a Wednesday morning, so I thought this was unique, too.
Wednesday morning turned out to be an original thought for a lot of other wedding planners, too. We arrived at the appointed location ahead of time to find waves of happy people flooding down the street, past where the marriage hall was located, towards the big temple at the end of the block. Streets were blocked off, and from every direction small wedding parties slowly made their way to the same destination. I asked what was happening and I was told that the big temple at the end of the street would conduct ceremonies for fifteen hundred couples throughout the day; just in our little wedding hall there were 20 couples signed up to follow us. Everyone on the street, and on the side streets and allies connecting to it, was there for a wedding. All 1500 couples were there for their unique wedding day. Just like us!
1500 couples is a lot of brides and grooms. It’s even more unusual to see so many other married couples if you are one of them. I was struck by how many other grooms there were, and that despite the fact that we were obviously very different, and would never see each other again, we had this moment of being the same together. I made eye contact with dozens of these other men, and as I met each one’s eyes I felt a moment of recognition. They weren’t all in the same emotional space – there were a few guys who looked panicked, and others who were cool as cucumbers – but it was moving to be having an experience so unexpected and unlike anything I’d heard of, and to be sharing that with a lot of other grooms who were going through the same ceremonies as me on this morning. Instinctively, I knew that I was part of something much larger and important than just me, or me and Susannah. We were unique, just like all these other couples.
My special day with Susannah was sanctified by the presence of strangers in multitudes, helping me see that I’m part of a human ritual that’s both unique and quite common. India forces you to surrender to its will, and when you want to have things your way it’s really frustrating. My understanding of the power of God is similar, and my wedding day has helped me see this relationship more clearly. When I’ve asserted my own will, I’ve been alone and frustrated. When I’ve listened and surrendered, I’ve received what I needed in great abundance. Seeing all those grooms reminded me of that, and helped me savor a short ceremony at a crowded temple with the woman with whom I stumbled into when I got here, and with whom I’m thrilled to share so much time and love. I may not be the most unique newlywed in Chennai, but I definitely feel like the luckiest.
I recently sat in a beat-up rowboat on the River Ganges, watching the layers of contrasting and connected lives on the shores of Varanasi, thinking of Achilles’ Shield. (Yes, I use Homeric poetry to process intense experiences in my life). While Varanasi is not engulfed in war, it is as close to a real-life reproduction of the complete human experience that Achilles carries on his arm to meet Hector.
In Book 18 of The Iliad, the god Hephaestus forges Achilles a new shield before his fate-changing return to battle against the Trojans. Hephaestus creates a shield worthy of the epic, as it contains the human world and all the contradictions that come with it. Hephaestus captures human nature within the confines of a circle of bronze and leather. Homer uses 130 lines of poetry and the fortunes and destitution of two contrasted cities to show us the ebbs and flows of humanity.
Varanasi is a small city with an epic history. It was once one of the greatest cities in the ancient world. Visitors had to arrive by boat, and the 9 miles of city walls with nearly two dozen dramatic gates introduced a grandeur that it still emits in special moments. An ancient foreign emissary to Varanasi once wrote that this city surpassed all the great cities he’d seen – Athens, Sousa, Rome, Jerusalem.
Time did not treat this once great city favorably. It was destroyed several times by foreign invaders so that much of what exists today is not more than a few hundred years old. I found it to feel like a relatively small town with a big challenge: this city is one of the holiest places in the world. For Hindus, Varanasi is perhaps the most sacred place, and so, millions pilgrimage here each year. Bathing in this river during one’s life, or being cremated here after is believed to help achieve moksha, release from the painful cycle of human reincarnation. Untold numbers of non-Hindus, like me, come to see what the spectacle is all about.
Early mornings bring most pilgrims to the shoreline, and evening offers ritual ceremonies with bells and fire. As a result, dawn and dusk are prime time for boat tour hours. From my boat, I began to see the great divide that occurs in and around this holy water.
The poorest of the poor bathe at the steps in front of the great temples, which are called ghats. These ritualized bathing spots are believed to offer the best chance at achieving moksha. Believers are lined up elbow-to-elbow, and in rows three deep to get in the water. Men in their lungees and women in their bathing saris of varying vibrant colors dunk, splash, and scrub themselves. The bathing movements appear so similar to be routines, but they are done in different speeds, so while out of sync with each other there’s a near-synchronicity to the human actions on the river’s edge. Squeezed in between the bathers is the high-pitched chanting of pilgrims and the heavy brass tones of ringing temple bells. In the end, all the space is filled with movement and the senses are overtaxed with the beautiful chaos.
The worshippers appear to the viewers from the boats against a back drop of the ghats and the walled palaces that belong to the families of the great maharajas of old India. India has only been a single political body for six decades; before that it was a vast land of fiercely competitive kingdoms. The maharajas, or great kings, from across the subcontinent built testaments to their own importance along the shore long ago. Great walls of these mansions jut up vertically from the water line. The walls add to the dramatic flair of the structures, and they serve a critical function. Each monsoon raises the level of the river by about 40 feet or more. The abrupt walls literally keep water out of the palaces, thus keeping a clear distinction between land and water. But there’s another clear divide, too: the walls, with turrets atop and viewing plazas in between also delineate the stark contrast between lives of those at the foot of the walls and those who sit atop them. Perhaps the difference is only 50 feet, but the distance may as well be worlds apart, for the people in each location could never imagine existing in the others’.
The caste system is as vibrantly alive in Varanasi as the color variations and patterns of the elaborate saris for sale in the textile shops. As news of the rituals on display on the river bank spread outside of this region, travelers curious about Hindu rites or India in general, have come here in droves, adding a new caste to the ancient social layers. The short term visitors only stay a few days at a time, but rooms in the guest houses are never empty, and our (for I am clearly one of this horde) omnipresent existence is the source of wealth for a caste of denizens in this town that otherwise would have no options for financial gain. I interacted with dozens of people in my four days in Varanasi who called the city home. Every single one wanted me to buy something, rent something, or make a donation to some worthy cause. Each person was just one making a request like a single musical note, but taken together, each day was a movement by a full orchestra.
My favorite experience was around one of the Burning Ghats, which is where bodies are cremated on funeral pyres that burn for around three hours each. It is possible to walk right up to these ghats, as long as you’re not pointing your camera anywhere near them. In fact, upon arriving there (each time, for we walked past the ghat several times) we were told repeatedly “No photos!” That makes sense to me – I can see how the family of the deceased would want to preserve some privacy. At the same time – and I mean the exact same time – we were asked to donate to the hospice (that doesn’t exist) so many times that by day two I could predict the order of the sales pitch. And in the background, a goat is eating the remnants of a funeral shroud, the water buffaloes are pooping really close to one of the smoldering pyres, and there’s a generator running a water pump to power a water hose for spraying the caked mud off the walk-way that is adjacent to the pyre area.
It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the spectacle of these abrupt contrasts. It’s easy to forget that we are watching people in their most intimate moments. Much of my India is like this – on my morning walk I can see fishermen in the village a mile south of where I live defecating in the morning tide if I want to, and on the same walk I pass a movie-star’s housing compound – but in Varanasi there are no margins. I see people sleeping, begging, pooping & peeing, crying, laughing, hustling, and mourning their deceased loved ones as the funeral pyres burn brightly. And all within a few feet of each other.
The power of Achilles’ Shield is that it contains the fullness of the human experience within the two cities captured together in bronze and leather. Here, too, is the full range of humanity. The sacred and the ordinary, all smashed together.