We’re unique. Just like everyone else.

IMG_1605

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.

Varanasi

maharaja's palace

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.

morning on the Ganges

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.

night time row

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.

 

 

morning prayers

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dragonflies

IMG_1382

It’s lovely this time of year. The mornings are cool – today, even, the off-shore breeze gave the water at the beach a glass-textured surface, and the waves broke uncharacteristically beautifully. As I took a break from playing pick-up Ultimate Frisbee yesterday, I noticed the dragonflies, zooming around about twenty feet off the ground. I use to think there were seasons here for dragonflies, and bats. That’s not how it works, as it turns out. The reality is that they each occupy different bits of airspace and during different times of the day. The dragonflies, for example, like it within an hour or two of when the sun is either rising or setting. Bats, of course, like the twilight and later. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats ever even see each other.

 

There are parts of Chennai I never see. The parts I do see I have grown very fond of in a short amount of time. I live in an apartment with a view of the Bay of Bengal that would make real estate developers’ Pintrest boards go wild. I get to walk down it every morning, engaging in a daily gratitude practice with the woman to whom I’m engaged. I see the beach life in the early part of the day – the dogs just waking up and chasing each other around with their morning friskiness. There are the regular cast of characters: the men doing calisthenics routines you’ve seen in grainy black and white filmstrips of PE classes in small town America, circa 1950. There are groups of gray-headed men who sit on the wall at the edge of the road, laughing together about the things that old men at the beach in the morning laugh about. A little ways down are old Indian ladies in their saris, discussing each other’s business with energy and gusto. My favorite character is a short, wiry guy who digs for crabs in the wet sand of the early morning low tide.

Last weekend was the end of the Ganapathy festival that I wrote about last year in Be Here Now. I knew what to expect this year, and I had a much easier time being present than before, but the event was just as joyous and cacophonous as ever. Hundreds of trucks lined up with their statues of Ganapathy in the cargo hold, waiting to deliver their patron god to his place in the sea. There are rules that govern this event, but Indian customs, as far as I can tell, often place emphasis on having the last word or the loudest word. And almost no one listens. So when everyone is shouting at everyone else, you’re really in India.

Ganapathy season ended last weekend. I imagine there are people who live in this sprawling city who don’t know that this even exists; to those who are present for it, there’s hardly an experience that rivals it. I think I may leave Chennai with this event chiseled into my top three India experiences: it would top number three, the road trip to the end of the continent that I took last spring with my best friend from high school, but be behind number one: meeting Susannah.

India is chaos sometimes, but it’s also lovely. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats feel the epic disorganization and contradictions. I doubt it. They’re probably just thinking, ‘hey, it’s time to eat.’ I can relate. There’s some butter masala paneer waiting for me in the kitchen.

Differences

Mr. Ranson

“What’s the biggest difference between Middle School and High School?”

This question has come my way a lot in the past two weeks. A lot.

I made the switch this school year from teaching high school, where I’ve been for a decade as an educator, to 8th grade. I’m teaching U.S. History for the first time to four sections of students who come from 14 different countries. Fewer than ten of them are American.

If you haven’t been following along, I work in a school in India, where the majority of my students are Korean. The words “American” and “International” are in the name of my school. It doesn’t take a lot of contemplation to recognize that teaching American history to 13 year olds, the majority of whom have never studied or particularly cared about the history of the U.S. before could be rough.

The central challenge in all teaching, regardless of age group or subject, is communicating the relevance of your topic to a group of people who have not-yet-developed brains, who don’t really have a solid ability to reason, and who are easily distracted by a myriad of alternatives just a touch screen away.

These challenges are the same, as far as I can tell, in high school and middle school. The students in high school, especially juniors and seniors, are more pragmatic and cynical. They often can’t be bothered to do anything that doesn’t have a strong connection to helping them get into college. 9th graders are curious, but they’re also shell-shocked as the transition they so looked forward to in the year before now is real, and it includes sharing space with people who are tall, who can drive, and whom often are shaving. And sophomores are just solipsistic fools, thinking they’ve got the world figured out.

Eighth graders are bean poles of humanity. They are wet clay. They are kings of their heap, and they know it, but they lack the abject fear that 12th graders possess – a fear that comes incidentally from all those “rest of your life” conversations which are part of trying to figure out the college application process. Those little 8th graders want to dig into highly complex morality plays and unpack propositions about human nature. They’re admirable for this unknowing confidence.

They are also a bunch of weirdos. Most aren’t through their growth spurts, so they walk around in various states of physical awkwardness so sharp that I find myself muttering under my breath “stay with it buddy, you’re almost through this phase.” The girls have begun to show signs of sophistication. The advanced ones have better hair than their peers. The advanced boys are now wearing adult-sized t-shirts, instead of the junior sizes of the kids in the younger grades, and they strut around like the proud peacocks I’ve seen in rural parts India.

The biggest difference between middle school and high school is that middle school students still like drawing pictures of their teachers. I’ve been in high school for ten years and I never saw one of my students sketch anything that was supposed to be me. In less than two weeks of teaching 8th grade, there are two student-made posters in my classroom with my likeness on them. They giggle at it with a hint of attitude indicating to me that drawing pictures of your teacher is just what you do. Duh, Mr. Ranson.

So there you go: in high school students take tests; in middle school, they draw pictures of their teachers on posters. I think I’ve got this year figured out.

Next question?

The First Year

20140606-100057-36057141.jpg

I just finished my first year in India, and I don’t know how to start talking about it. If you’ve followed my other posts you’ve seen that I’ve struggled at times with being fully present here, nearly drowning in the Ganges, getting sick, dealing with students who have learning needs I’m not accustomed to, and even the death of a colleague. That makes for the kind of year that requires new vocabulary. I’m certain I haven’t found the right words yet.

It’s a fact that there isn’t a single thing in my life that’s the same as it was a year ago, and if I look back on the past 18 months — which encapsulates the time when I accepted this job — it’s clear that this time has been filled with unparalleled change. In recent weekly brunches with my friend, J, we’ve talked about how life-changing experiences and decisions in The World come at a rate of one every couple of years, maybe every five years, but for us, the past year here has featured 4 or 5 huge, life-altering changes. As he and I speculated about what returning to “home” would be like this summer, we both wondered how to explain to someone not here what it’s like, or, even more daunting, what is different about ourselves.

I can’t answer that query easily. My gut response is that it would be best if you just spent some time with me and noticed where the changes are yourself.

India, perhaps uniquely or perhaps like other developing countries, contains so many contradictions as well as extremes. One of the changes in my life is I met someone I intend on spending my life with. We walk every morning on the beach, which has become a grounding ritual that I treasure to the point that I can’t imagine being without it. Last weekend we walked further than usual in the early morning heat, strolling through a fishing village that is among one of the poorer places one might encounter in the world (although it is not “real poverty” by Indian standards, I’m told). We passed by old ladies with no teeth and who couldn’t walk who begged for money, and kids squatting in the open 20 feet from us for their daily duty. It struck me that bearing witness to those moments had almost no impact on me. Seeing these things are now normal. Later that day I attended a sumptuous farewell brunch at a high-end hotel in the city, and this extravagance too has become something normal.

India tests anyone, I suppose. With so many inconsistencies and paradoxes it can be overwhelming, but also invigorating. For my old job I commuted long distances each day that sucked the life out of me. Here I drive with voracious joy, the high point being the road trip with my best friend from high school a few months ago to the southern tip of the continent. In the U.S. I suppose there were experiences I knew were going to be taxing and I could avoid or gear up for them: driving in DC, talking to the nitwit administrators at my old school, calling Baltimore City government for help with anything. Conversely, either because of my lack of familiarity with the circadian rhythms of this town or its real-life unpredictability, I feel like I always have to be ready for what’s next, and I can never predict what that is. I love that about being here.

Living in India, perhaps more than all other things I’ve learned, has helped me foster a deeper sense of gratitude. I’m grateful to work for and with great educators at a burgeoning school, I’m grateful that the emotional chaos I felt leaving the US has been replaced by a calm and clarity about where I’m going next. I thank the gods that I’ve met my person, and I am elated each time I hear from someone back home who wants to (re)connect. The list continues, all of the items are reasons to feel blessed.

I’m looking forward to seeing familiar faces upon my return home this summer, and I can’t wait for things like gluten free pizza and beer, a good hamburger, and movie theaters where the patrons don’t catcall the actors on the screen, but I’m also looking forward to coming back in the fall. For you see, I love it here. Maybe that’s all I need to say.

More Resolve

Resolution: resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

This is my second round with this Franklinian virtue, and it’s more difficult than my first go at it thirteen weeks ago. The time of year makes it difficult: April and May are the months when my mistakes as a teacher are made plain. The end of the year looms, as do the high-stakes tests and the concerns about the future. Almost no one is present in the moment – there’s too much left to be done and not nearly enough time to do it. Students are most needy in the spring. Some are concerned with grades. Others are overwhelmed preparing to move to another city, country, and school. A few are learning that their psycho-social issues are not just phases and need to be dealt with directly. When plans are made for this time of year back in the fall, there’s rarely an accounting for how emotionally taut the school climate is in the spring.

Amidst this swirling and second-guessing that is typical in Semester 2, tragedy emerged. One of my colleagues lost a long battle with cancer last weekend. She’d been on leave since December. She was intensely private; she did not want people to see her suffer. I didn’t know her well, but she mattered to the students, parents, and other teachers in this community. She fought hard to live, and then let go when it was time. The empty space she left is noticeable, and my school officials made space in the school day to memorialize her on Monday, and again on Wednesday as they delayed the beginning of classes three hours so community members could attend her funeral ceremony. I have never been in a community that has made such clear gestures about what matters in a time such as this.

The Hindu image of the vessel has emerged several times this week. One of the beliefs handed down from the Bhagavad Gita, which perhaps the most important sacred Hindu text, is that the human body serves as a carrier of life force. My colleague, for example, literally carried life from her mother to her daughter. It was also apparent that she metaphorically carried life force to her students and the families she engaged with over the twelve years she worked at my school. She mattered to a lot people; she left her mark on others by filling them with knowledge, inspiration, and pride in their own work. Vessels are more fragile, though, than the contents they carry, and when she recognized that her body had become too ravaged from her illness to continue she finally accepted that with the grace with which she lived.

One of the silly things that we adults in the privileged world do to our young people is suggest – so often that we all start to believe it – that we can just decide what we will do with our lives. Implicit in our messaging is the fiction that if we have enough will power we can create the things we want, just as we want them. The reality, as I see it, is that this world view leaves no space for this thing called life, which can include suffering and setbacks that severely alter our priorities and our course. It doesn’t take into account the quality of our own vessel, nor the preciousness of the contents inside it. AP tests start next week, IB exams follow, and seniors have their final assessments the week after. Then come Finals for the rest of the students. All of this “matters” to the machines of college and the future. But none of it matters as much as making space to acknowledge that these things we are studying – arts and letters, sciences and mathematics – are only creations to help us make sense of both the vessel and the life force. It pains me, for example, that I feel pressure to use every moment of limited time in our last day together with my AP students to prep them for The Test, when what feels right is to read some of the wonderful pieces of literature devoted to understanding what happens when this all ends, and how death affects the living. The right thing to do is clear to me, but this is a data-driven world now, and months from now the scores for my students will stand on their own. Perhaps I’ll be judged by those scores, perhaps not. Perhaps my students will get to explain why they were so distracted during exam week, but I doubt it. It may take them years to realize that these tests are a fiction that don’t matter, at least not nearly as much as learning to live, which is what my departed colleague manifested better than anything else.

I didn’t know Indrani well, but I miss her.

So back to Resolution and performing “what I ought.” More time thinking about the vessel. Fewer assessments.

Showing Up

IMG_1066 IMG_1051 IMG_1034 525744_10102430625768307_641545376_n

 

I have an intense memory of my first night driving my first car. My aunt gave me a beat up, thirteen year old VW Rabbit that had practically no resale value when I got it. The odometer was stuck at 89,963 miles. It ran on diesel, and it was loud as all get out. I often set off car alarms if I drove too close to the nicer vehicles that were parked on the street in my neighborhood on my way to school. The Beast and I spent a lot of time together, starting just before my 17th birthday when I got it.

The first night I had The Beast, I showed up at  my best friend’s house to pick him up for some low-speed joy-riding. He grabbed two-handfuls of Red Vines from the Costco-sized tub in the kitchen at his house, and off we went. We cruised over to another friend’s house, and the three of us, listening to a cassette of Bob Marley, drove around one of the extensive tracked-housing developments near where we went to junior high school. For a time that night, everything in the world was perfect.

21 years later, my best friend, Matt, showed up in India, and we set off on a new vehicular adventure. This road trip took us through south India — and is as far from that night with Red Vines and Bob Marley in 1993 as we could get without leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. We loaded into The Duchess, my current diesel-powered workhorse of a vehicle, and set off on Indian roads to reach the end of the country. Our goal was to drive to the southern-most tip of the country, where three bodies of water — the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean — come together. Fittingly, Bob Marley’s music inaugurated our first day of driving.

Matt arrived here just after the eight-month anniversary of my arrival in Chennai. He’s my first visitor. I’d heard others here talk about the significance of your first visitor, but I hadn’t thought about it much. Then I saw him walk through the doors at the airport when arrived. It was both familiar, like, “oh, hey Matt,” and remarkable, as in, “holy shit, Matt just walked out of the airport in Chennai to visit me!” What I get now is your first visitor is a huge deal, and it is appropriate that Matt was the first to visit me here.

One of the things that makes Matt great is that he’s someone who Shows Up. He has a long record of this, as his wife, his friends, his family can attest. He downplays this part of himself a bit — it’s not a big deal, that’s just how he’s wired, he’d say — but those of us who know him recognize that to show up like he does requires thoughtfulness and decision-making which few people possess. He’s really good at it — this is his super power.

We drove nearly 1200 miles from Chennai to Kanyakumari and back, along “highways” that were three-lanes wide in some places, but later would reduce to dirt roads at times. There was literally a part of “National Highway – 7” where we crossed a dry river bed (thank goodness there was no monsoon this year) that was around half a mile wide. We needed each other for this — I needed him to navigate; he needed me to drive, and it worked out perfectly. For five days in a row, in the second-most populated country in the world, we saw no westerners (save one American woman who was running one of the hotels we visited). We drove through dusty villages, major urban centers, rice paddies, plantations of coconut trees and banana trees, fisheries, a nature sanctuary, and wind farms. At our terminous, we gazed out at the beginning of a hemisphere of water that extends south of India and continues all the way to Antarctica. It was empowering to drive there, and the view of such an expanse of water was like looking into the Grand Canyon — I felt very humbled in that space.

The last time Matt and I spent this kind of time together — eight days in a row — we were in high school. I posted to Facebook that there will be a time in our lives, perhaps in another 21 years, when we talk about that time we road-tripped through southern India together. When I wrote that post I was a little flippant. There’s gravity to that feeling now, and while I know that the experience we had together — including all the things we talked about, the advice we gave each other, the old things we laughed about, the new things we puzzled out together, the close-calls on the road, and the glee each of us felt upon reaching our destination — will mean different things to me with time and reflection, I feel intense gratitude to him and for the incredible power of Showing Up.

Matt showed up. In India! And neither of us will never be the same again. நன்றி!