Tag Archives: Writing

More to the Story

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Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.

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I know why the caged bird sings

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

I have always loved poetry and these last several weeks I keep coming back to the above poem. I keep visualizing the free bird in contrast to the caged bird. I think between the racially charged news stories this week and the wonderful visual of wanderlust, this poem is just on the brain.

Wanderlust you ask? When I am on the move, experiencing the new and unfamiliar, I feel exhilaration. I can relate to thinking of another breeze and naming the sky my own.

But that leads me to wonder…what cages me in? What is there in my life that makes me or others feel that our wings are clipped, that our feet our tied–that keep us from reaching our potential? What cages do other people face that haven’t even occurred to me? What do we allow to hold us back? What cages others in that we allow by our silence?

Each time I travel, especially to somewhere foreign (not in distance so much as familiarity of culture), I learn something new. I learn to see from someone else’s perspective. And I learn more fully the types of cages that entrap others.

The universality of this poem is that we all have both feared and longed for things unknown. The oppression is very tangible in the poem–the bird wishes for freedom, but the narrow cage and bars of rage physically limit the bird’s potential, its ability to fly, to be free.

I was not an English major and I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry, but I love this poem. There is such a strong desire here, a spirit in the caged bird who wants so much to be free, even if it means facing the unknown. Angelou writes with such a clear voice, I can almost hear her reading this and feeling it, too. She without question knows why the caged bird sings–she has felt the bondage of the birdcage and she is intimately familiar with the bird’s cry. Like listening to a blues singer who has felt the pain of heartbreak, the reader is fully aware of Angelou’s fearful longing and can sympathize with her cry.

Poems, like music, have a way of bypassing your head, only to land on your heart. They have the unique ability to pose serious questions and critique society in a way that prose is often to direct for. (If I had a talent for writing in meter, maybe I would switch from prose to verse!)

The Next Adventure

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…No, I haven’t found a job yet. I am considering traveling in the next 6 months or returning to Nepal for awhile before those pesky student loans need to be paid off. Any ideas about where I should go?

But I did begin a new adventure this past month. Few things in life give me as much joy as writing about my observations and encounters and reading about the observations and encounters of others. (Some may call this a blog addiction…I prefer to thing of it as being in love with learning anything and everything about people, their thoughts and their values…call it what you will. 🙂 )

For the first time, I met with a writers group. A few friends of mine from graduated school (Freudian slip? I mean graduate school) have probably discussed beginning a writers group for a year. We had a great time, reading each other’s work and receiving feedback.

We were all a bit nervous. Sharing your writing is a bit like bearing your soul. It’s personal when you receive criticism, constructive or otherwise, because (at least for me) word choice and tone are very personal. It’s the means through which you are sharing your experiences and your reactions.

In addition to soul-bearing, each author in the group writes completely different genres and styles. One has a great and pithy style, writing horror and other disturbing subjects. Another writes sort of sad stories–not totally realistic and not totally fantasy–with a point to get across. A third (who unfortunately missed this session) focuses on young adult literature.

And lastly, there is me–who may someday write YA fiction or short plays, but currently blogs about travel, life, searching for joy, my faith, politics, and other various non-fiction pursuits. We are quite eclectic, but I think that keeps us interesting and able to provide feedback from different perspectives.

Plus, who doesn’t love dinner with friends discussing your favorite books and your writing pursuits?

I am however the bad writer…I showed up without writing to present. Next month…

Come Sail Away…

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I’m sailing away,
Set an open course for the virgin sea,
‘Cause I’ve got to be free,
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me,
On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard,
We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore,
And I’ll try, Oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on

I’ve been singing Styx since a very young age. There was not a family road trip that didn’t involve rocking out to Styx (along with a few other favorites…The Night Chicago Died–who doesn’t love a song about gang warfare? And of course, a family favorite, Afternoon Delight…yeah, don’t ask). In fact, I remember a bus ride at camp singing Styx with one of my first crushes. Styx. That is true love. (I may have had better taste in men as a twelve year old…the jury is still out).

And this. This is the song that comes to me this weekend in the midst of a silent retreat. Have you ever spent 48+ hours not talking? I highly recommend it, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Advice from friends, family, and mentors is great–often essential. But sometimes you have to quiet all the voices and listen to what it is that you want and what you need. Plus, I’m all about inner peace and tranquility; living life in a rather large metropolis focused on success and achievement sometimes requires that you take a step back to reestablish the inner calm among the chaos and the busy.

So here I am: thesis-ing, job searching, working, homework-ing (yes, I invent school related verbs), blogging, and volunteering. Well-rested, I attempt to attack my thesis and my upcoming projects with a more sane (less anxious) mind and a firmer sense of direction. I have come to realize in my silence that what I am really seeking is not just the next adventure or the answer to the inevitable “What am I going to do when I grow up?”, but joy. The joy of travel. The joy of family and friends. The joy of my faith, of new experiences, of exploring new hobbies, of celebrating life.

And to my future, I say…

On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard!

And here I’m facing adventure…

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What will this day be like? I wonder.
What will my future be? I wonder.
It could be so exciting to be out in the world, to be free
My heart should be wildly rejoicing
Oh, what’s the matter with me?

I’ve always longed for adventure
To do the things I’ve never dared
And here I’m facing adventure
Then why am I so scared

 

Without fail, Rodgers and Hammerstein have lyrics to fit every situation. (Including, “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no, I’m in a terrible fix!”…but that is another musical for another blog post!) This pretty much sums up my life at the present moment.

And what should I be doing at the present moment? I should be writing my master’s thesis at this very moment…the moment during “snowquestration”, with absolutely no snow on the ground but a day off from work. Sometimes, I do love the federal government. In fact, it’s well timed. I almost took a vacation day this week to dedicate extra time to my thesis. Instead I’ve spent the day attempting to work from home, looking at job openings, doing laundry, and getting my kitchen and bathroom spotless. …Well, at least I have clean clothes for tomorrow. And two paragraphs added to chapter two of my thesis.

I’ve also been reading blogs almost obsessively. Maybe I should’ve given THAT up for lent (lord knows my Facebook fast failed by week two). But somehow I can’t get enough. I’ve been yearning to write on this blog for months, but didn’t have something set to post about. Usually a coherent topic just comes to me and so a new post is birthed. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of something that meshed what I wanted to write about and what my audience would want to read. If no one reads this, I might as well start a journal. I don’t need my private thoughts shared on the inter-webs–I would like to have something worth sharing.

But this Wanderlust Traveler is currently wondering, wandering and LOST. JRR Tolkien has a quote which I love (and is currently on a luggage tag attached to my suitcase), “Not all who wander are lost.” Well…such is the blessing and curse of so many possibilities come May.

 

“I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the kind of woman I wanted to be.”

Diane Von Furstenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There are less ants on the toilet and that makes me happy.”

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I brought a notebook with me to write and reflect about my trip. My mother is such a talented journal-er that often when we talk and I am away her first question is, “Are you writing this down? Are you keeping a journal?”

Well unfortunately, between my blog and my research report, I can’t say I have that much energy to write more. Plus, as much as I love to read the journal my mother kept about me growing up, I hate rereading my old journal entries. I probably have 2 or 3 entries in 20 journals that span my nearly quarter of a century. The rest of the pages are blank.

My intentions are good. A travel journal. A prayer journal. A self-improvement journal. An inspiring quotes and poems journal. An overdramatic I’m 13 years old journal. A To-Do list journal (now that one was just depressing). A things I could do with my future journal…actually come to think of it, most of them fall in that category—even my first journal entry as a newly literate 2nd grader.

But let’s be honest. I’m not my mother and I don’t have her talent for keeping a journal. I’d like to think I got some of her talent for writing. I brought a journal with me on this adventure. I don’t think I can make a packing list without one. All of the pages sit next to my bed, neatly bound and blank. And waiting. Waiting for me to animate them.

But today, I thought of a new journal. I had a realization today as I was going to the bathroom (TMI?). There are less ants on the toilet today than yesterday, I thought when I turned on the light, and that put me in a better mood. Well, THIS ought to be an interesting journal, you’re thinking…where is this going?

My friend wrote an email to her mom that went something like this: “How am I? Well, our hot plate doesn’t work all of the time, the power goes out several times a day, our refrigerator is broken, we don’t really have real mattresses-more like mats, our air conditioner unit leaks so we have buckets under it. There are ants (and now flea-like creatures) in our bathroom and kitchen and food. We’re pretty much out of food because the monsoon has flooded the streets the last 3 days on the way home from work. But we’re doing okay.”

She read the litany to me and we agreed that all of that was true. We’re not whining about it, this is how things are. Do we get tired of it? Sometimes. Are we happy here? Absolutely. In fact, we laugh about things every day—usually caused by something in that litany. We’re doing just fine. More than anything, it’s just different. And that’s alright because we didn’t come here to acquire old experiences.

As we decided earlier in this experience, “What we’ve learned this summer is that attitude is everything.” It is very true and I am so thankful that we are both upbeat and adventurous. I could go into the “Well at least we have electricity”, “at least we have air-conditioning” mode, which is all true. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

I think after all of this that my journal is going to be one of reminders. That when I buy my first house or any house, I don’t need to have the best master bathroom to be happy. Or if I lose something material and can’t afford to replace, it’ll be okay. That I can in fact be happy and enjoy where I am and that moment. Ultimately, aside from being able to meet my basic needs, my circumstances are not that important. It won’t be anything monumental. Especially to anyone else.

The first entry? “There are less ants on the toilet and that makes me happy.”

Note: First, as with most of my posts, I wrote this entry last week and I’m just now posting it. I have one week left in this location and it has been a blast! My next entry will be photos from sites around Bhubaneswar–today we went to the Tribal Museum and tomorrow we’re going to a temple and Puri (a beach).

“Live the life you have imagined.”

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Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you have imagined.
—Henry David Thoreau

Do you ever just “feel” a blog post coming on? Well I do. I actually have another post written—a story from last week. It’s a good one too, though it rambles a bit. I also have a collection of pictures from the impromptu photo shoot we had last week at the office. Ah, well…sometimes you just need to write. I don’t consider myself a “writer” or an “artist” by any means, but I do love to create—something new and totally my own.

Today I woke up and came to work, continuing typing up the report on my study. As I was typing, I realized a few things. First off, I care way more about layout than I should…I like aesthetics, so sue me. (I will not get off into a discussion of the Beautiful right now.) But more importantly, I am much better at asking questions than answering them. I also really only have some interest in the answer.

My report so far is full of far more questions and suggestions for future studies than actually analysis (I know…I’m working on it!!). I noticed at the museum here, I turned into that six year old—constantly asking my host, What about this? How did this come about? Why? (Who are we kidding? I WAS that six year old and probably never grew out of it. Thank you, Mom, for putting up with me.) But my interest lies in the possibilities of a problem or an issue, rather than implementing the concrete solution. Now if only I can find a job that requires me to be an ideas woman…

The quote which fixed itself into my brain this morning sometime between breakfast and morning tea time was the Thoreau quote above. Admission. I am part transcendentalist at heart. I know this quote is a perennial of every high school yearbook ad and commencement speech—every spring without fail, someone somewhere is looking out at bright, young, optimistic graduates spouting this call to action.

How is this relevant to India? Like a broken record, the second part of this phrase is spinning in my brain. Is this the life I have imagined? (There I go again with the questions…) I don’t think I would have in 1,000 years have imagined coming halfway across the world to India. I don’t think I would have dared to dream of India. And yet, going confidently, doggedly, in the direction of my dreams is something I’m well-practiced at (notice I didn’t say “always succeed at”, because I don’t!). I have dreamed of going to Nepal after a particularly awesome Tulsa Town Hall Lecture years ago…it was never a someday sort of dream, however. It was an I AM going to Nepal—even if it was qualified by an ambiguous “someday.” In 3 weeks, I am going to Nepal.

I think the point of this blog post is two-fold…first, I am constantly amazed at the opportunities I have. My Grandmother once told me, “Molly, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. You are lucky.” I would like to think my indomitable spirit—and my ability to submit as many scholarship, grant, trip, graduate school, etc. applications as necessary (until someone says YES!)—has some to do with it. But I know every step of the way that I am blessed and that others have sacrificed so that I can have these opportunities (my mother and grandmother just to name a few!).

Second, I am in the middle of trying to figure out what to pursue upon completion of my master’s degree. And while I decided as a middle schooler that my dream was to travel the world and meet new people (and I am well on my way there)…I am faced with the question, what is the life that I imagine?

Nine years ago I read a quote from Ben Stein that haunts me to this very day. “The first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: Decide what you want.”

Going confidently? Done. Living the life I’ve imagined? Damn, I wish I was better at answering questions.

Now back to get back to the study I’m conducting…