It’s been 58 months since I moved to India. I visited the Taj Mahal for the first time two weeks ago. All this time, I was waiting for the right opportunity to visit. I noticed among the small expat circle to which I’m connected that those who do not see themselves living in India for very long tend to go to the Taj Mahal not long after moving here. There are others who wait until a special occasion, like when a loved one comes to visit, to make the trek there from Chennai. I had plans to visit with distinguished guests, but there’s a lot to see in India, and it just never came together until now. I had actually begun to wonder if it would ever happen — there were always other places to go. As a way of justifying not having been yet, I said to myself that it’s a lot schlepping to see a single building. Two of Susannah’s dear friends from way back planned a trip to see us and to travel to some other parts of the country, finishing with a rendezvous in Delhi and then together we’d move on to Agra.
The Taj is one of those places that I had seen so often in photographs. I wondered if it could live up to the hype (a friend who has visited often even suggested the day before we left that I lower my expectations). The closer we got to the trip, I also had a surfacing memory of loss related to the Taj Mahal: a friend I’d known from high school was killed when she was in college as the bus she was riding in crashed on the road from Delhi to Agra. Those memories were in the background as we planned for and started off on our visit.
The Taj Mahal website says that as many as 8 million people visit the site each year (with only 800,000 coming from overseas!). I also read that the number of daily visitors is capped at 40,000 — which is Disneyland-level numbers. There aren’t a lot of other reasons to visit Agra — it looks and feels like a relatively small town, even village, that as tens of thousands of people arriving and departing every day. In a country where extremes are the norm, Agra stands apart for its dichotomous daily routines.
We lucked out in our planning as it enabled us to enter the grounds just after sunrise. It was cool, fewer people were there, and the light slowly shifted over the time we were there. The area around the grounds and mausuleom are designed so that the Taj is not visible until you get right up to it. Most people see it for the first time as they walk through a wide door in a tall gate — the antechamber entrance is dark; gradually the people in front of you filter forward and suddenly the source of the brightness coming at you is the light gleaming off of the white dome, towers, and walls of the Taj straight ahead of you. It’s a fun first impression.
I think I walked around the grounds with my mouth open with wonder for the first half an hour after arriving. The photos over the years — and how many have I seen of the Taj Mahal, hundreds, perhaps? — don’t do the place justice. Those images felt like they were as accurate as the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Cave. Once I could speak again, I think I said more than once that I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. Everyone around me was taking photos, which was no surprise. Thinking about it now, I wonder how many photos get taken there each day — could it be a million photos a day? That would only be 25 photos per person if 40,000 people actually visit in a day. Whatever the number, I can’t imagine that looking at all of those images taken on a single day would come close to capturing the experience of standing there.
The story behind the Taj Mahal is well known. A Mughal ruler, Shah Jahal, commissioned and built this place as a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. The details of the backstory didn’t sink in for me until I saw it in person — this is a testament to the Shah’s grief. He’s buried here, too, but I wonder if he felt any significant relief from his loss once it was finished. I did not expect to make the connection to my friend’s death from 22 years ago, but I had many memories of her in the week before our visit here. I was surprised that I remembered the moments that reemerged; I was also aware that in spite of the time that had passed, those memories felt like no time had passed at all. I image that the Shah’s sadness could not have been dulled by this massive monument. I wonder if that’s what he wanted.
When you enter the mausoleum itself, no photos are allowed. It’s dim and quiet, but not solemn as you make your way around the loop surrounding the faux-crypt inside (I read that the actual tombs to Mumtaz and the Shah rest below the area where tourists are permitted). As we circumnavigated inside, I found myself humming the tune of “Dear Prudence” — the Beatles’ song. Earlier this year, I read that John Lennon wrote this song at the transcendental meditation center in Rishikesh, India, as Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister) was in the middle of a meditation session in her room that lasted two full days.
I wondered, which is the greater honor — to have this magnificent building constructed in honor of your life, or to be the inspiration for a Beatles song?
The end is nigh! The end of the school year, I mean. Students wrapped up on Thursday. Faculty checked out on Friday. Administrators complete their work on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll get on a plane in the early, early hours of the morning on Monday with a little hop in my step as I look forward to a much-needed summer holiday. Just like that, my four years in India have blown by.
There’s a transitory quality to this life that is quite unlike the common teaching experience in North America. Teacher turnover in schools happens with much less frequency there than it does in the international teaching world. Tenure isn’t a thing here. Typically, a teacher signs a two-year contract, and after that is on as many one-year contracts as is mutually agreed upon by the teacher and the school. There are some international teachers who purposely choose to move every two years, and there are others who stay as long as they feel comfortable doing what they’re doing in that place. The average length of stay by teachers at my school is nearly five years — that number has gone up a lot in the time I’ve been here. I think there’s a sweet spot of the average number of years a faculty stays in place, although I don’t know what it is yet. If the a average is low, that says something — maybe that there’s too much disruption and instability; on the other hand, the average years of service could be too high — perhaps signifying that a faculty is too traditional or inhospitable to new educational methods.
The end of the year brings with it some “have a great summer” moments, but also a lot of goodbyes. Typically a quarter of our students leave the school at the end of the year. Teachers leave too — not in the same proportions — and saying goodbye is tough. Even though Chennai is a huge population center, there’s a small-town quality to my school community. For most members of the faculty, the people we work with are also the people with whom we socialize and turn to for support. Bonds are formed quickly in this way, so when someone leaves, it’s not just like you’re losing a colleague. Your friends are going, and the departure brings with it a magnified loss. So, cleaning up your classroom or your office happens at the same time you pack up your house or apartment. Emotions are everywhere.
One of the things I have come to appreciate is that the consistent turnover that is the nature of international education brings with it frequent validations and affirmations. I have noticed that people tell each other what they appreciate about one another more often than in other places I worked. This is not to say that I didn’t feel valued by my colleagues at my old school, but rather that I see many more instances of teachers (and students) communicating the impact that a departing colleague or friend has had than I witnessed or felt in my working life in the U.S. I appreciate that the frequent departures spark frequent conversations where one adult says to another “I appreciate you because . . . .” So, some sadness as I saw farewell to close friends, and also gratitude for the impetus to acknowledge these meaningful connections.
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.