Monday, November 26, 2007

Lessons from the bedside

Kovita.

She sits. Here. Hospital bed number 5. Two weeks past, she sat on the street. The street, her home. A hard enough home for the healthy, and Kovita was not healthy. Not after the taxi that hit her left her immobile on the sidewalk, a pair of open wounds on her ankles, two circles of black skin and blood and the edge of bone.

Kovita. Short hair, bright orange nightie. Her eyes are big and brown, and she smiles when we come around the corner into her ward. When we sit, she speaks to us in slow, slow Bangla. We are beginners, she knows. "Kalke Darjeeling didi eshechilo," she tells me. The Darjeeling sister came yesterday. That would be Lily, our British friend who first found Kovita on the sidewalk. "She brought me three mango juice drinks," Kovita continues, her eyes wider than normal, her finger poking the air for emphasis. "I drank two, and I gave her one." She motions to the elderly lady in bed number 6, who manages a wan smile.

Kovita is the hospital personality of her floor. She knows everyone's name, and she's not afraid to introduce herself to new visitors. One by one, she tells me the statuses of her fellow patients. Most of it I cannot understand; even when she speaks in slow and measured rhythm, there are many words which haven't made it into my small bin of Bangla vocab.

There is a problem with the bill tonight--something about how the hospital cannot change her dressing until we pay more. Sheila, who possesses a determination and gumption I do not, marches downstairs to sort the situation out. I stay perched on the edge of Kovita's bed. She is worried, about the bill and about the sorry lack of our Bangla. We do not know enough to adequately explain what we are trying to do. "We are straightening things out," I want to tell her. "It is going to be okay." But Kovita moves first, easing the conversation past its awkward halt. "What did you eat today?" she asks, leaning forward to touch me gently. This, food talk, I can do. I grin. "Bread and fruit and sweets and..." I pause. "Pasta?" I venture the English word, hoping she might recognize it. No. "Noodles?" I offer. Ah, yes, a nod. Noodles she knows.

"You did not eat rice?" she asks me, concern falling over her face like a curtain unrolled. I say no sadly. To go a day without eating rice is a grave offense in West Bengal. I do not tell her that I am trying to avoid rice, that I am actually tired of rice, that I will eat rice if Aunty serves it but I stopped voluntarily choosing it months ago.

Kovita. Our new friend who wants to come work at Sari Bari when her ankles heal, who motivates me to study Bangla although my leaving day is coming close, who teaches us about joy and life.

The road of love is paved with many tiny stones. I remember this today. Visiting one sick woman in one hospital in one Kolkata--it's a stone. Today, God asks me to lay this one stone with a pure heart and a set of willing hands. I will not lay the whole road today, nor in my lifetime. But with every new brick I am handed, I long to be faithful.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Now I'm a believer

They have been saying it's going to happen for months now. The cold weather is coming, they said. You won't always be sweating in Kolkata, they said. August swiftly gave way to September, September bowed out to October, yet it was not happening. We were still hot. So hot.
Until now. The weather is cooling, and this temperature change brings a lift to daily life. I walk down the street a bit more peppy because there is a breeze, and because I am wearing my hair down, and because for the first time in three months, it's not an epic disaster if I forget to wear deodorant.


By Missouri standards, it's not exactly cold. We're hovering at about 70 to 75 degrees here in K-town, but for natives of this city, this weather qualifies as "Brr! I'm getting out my winter coat!" For the long-promised picture, now worth a thousand words, here is my Uncle. All decked out in his winter glory. Sheila and I are still wearing t-shirts, but each to his own, I suppose.
Here are some other pictures from the last few weeks of life...
Banana flower is edible. Who knew? Sheila and I are helping Aunty with the peeling process. It's a tedious job, and I have to admit, when Uncle took this picture, I was probably thinking, "Can we just have grilled cheese?"

Here we are at Sari Bari, the sewing business where the ladies who leave the sex trade work. Sarah and I are doing some final inspection and patching of the blankets before shipment to the States. These blankets are beautiful. So vintage and cool.

This is pre-Thanksgiving prep. We peeled 8 kg of potatoes, 3 kg of apples, and snapped 1.5 kg of green beans. It was a classic afternoon, especially since we got to watch "White Christmas", which my family watches ever year on the day after Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember. A little piece of holiday home. Gee, I never get tired of that movie. Our Thanksgiving table! Beth and her roommates laid out a lovely dinner setting in their living room. For the actual feast, a few other friends joined our team. The great thing is, none of them were Americans. Celebrating Thanksgiving with Brits, New Zealanders, and a Dutch couple was a jolly time.

Dinner itself. This picture is a little dark, but you get the idea. I missed family...but it was a sweet time with my Kolkata family. A simplified holiday with a lot of heart.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Question. Is it possible to Fed-Ex a turkey?

(Hold that thought.)

I don't have the picture.

Lame, I know. On Saturday, I made a huge deal about it, and now I have the audacity to write a new post with absolutely no pictures attached. The details of this Kolkata life are too many and wide to explain exactly why I can't produce the picture today, but please, believe me when I say, "It's coming soon."

Here are some things I have done recently:

-Emptied out my wallet except for the money I needed today. Yesterday's epiphany: the fear of losing my wallet could be greatly reduced if I removed all the important cards and extra cash. So now those things are hiding...well...come now, do you really think I'd post where?
-Sang the "Isty Bitsy Spider" two times in a row. Told Ashtami she couldn't hit Parul three times in a row.
-Ordered a fruit salad for lunch from Blue Sky Cafe. The star of Blue Sky Cafe is Samson, the waiter, who remembers everyone's name and face and even remembers that I don't like bananas in my fruit salad. Wow. Go Samson.
-Went with Sonny and Jodi to New Market where we successfully dodged the men with baskets. If you ever live in Kolkata for longer than a month, you will come to know New Market as the Scariest Place Ever. At least that's how I feel about it. New Market is a huge collection of shops all gathered under one big roof, which I realize sounds very much like a mall, but it is not like a mall at all. And the worst of it is the men with baskets. Escaping away from them is like a video game I don't want to play.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving! I am going to be Pilgrim Rock in our team skit. Sonny wanted to be Pilgrim Rock, but I beat him up and stole the leading role. Sorry, Sonny. But really, we are going to have a big bash at Beth's flat, and there will be chicken, potatoes, green beans, and perhaps even pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie without an oven? Is it possible? I'll let you know as soon as I find out.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. For you, I pray clear vision to see what God has done, and big hearts to hope in what He will yet do.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Save the date

You know those save-the-date cards? The ones people who are planning a wedding send out before they actually send out invitations? Kind of a way to say, "Hey, I'm going to have one of the biggest days of my life soon, and I'd like you to be a part of it, so don't go putting anything on your calender for this day."

Well, I'm not getting married. And it's probably not true that the biggest blog post of my life is coming up soon, but I do want to use this short entry as a sort of "save-the-date" card.

This is what you can anticipate. I have this amazing picture of my Indian house Uncle, but this computer doesn't have a USB port, meaning I can't download the picture off Sheila's camera. Meaning the picture will have to wait. But, guys, you are going to love this picture. I think it might be one of the best of my Indian life. Definitely in the top ten.

So until a later date...a date when I can find a better computer...

Monday, November 12, 2007

on suffering

Is there not wrong too bitter for atoning?
What are these desperate and hideous years?
Hast Thou not heard Thy whole creation groaning,
Sighs of a bondsman and a woman's tears?
-F.W.H. Meyers

"The problem of pain," as C.S. Lewis titled it with his book on suffering, has been rattling around in me these three months, knocking its way through the hallways of my mind, tipping over tomes of theology I thought I had arranged quite nicely. (I used that word for you, Andrew.)

I can't claim to have anything new--gosh, C.S. Lewis wrote a book on it. But here are some thoughts:

Pain hurts. And we do not know why. Why pain, why hurt. If I imagine pain's arrival in Kolkata, I see him holding a very large suitcase, a suitcase he immediately unlatched and shook, letting fears and tears and broken bones and hungry bellies scatter aross the alleys and streets of this city. Whenever I arrived in Kolkata, with my very tiny suitcase of hope and goodwill and dreams, I took one look around the place and wanted to sit in a corner and cry. Nothing I had seen in my safe and sterile past prepared me for this.

Pain and suffering aren't things the church talks about all that much. The American church the least, probably. There is no blame to place or finger to point. The larger part of our culture just doesn't have to--or perhaps more accurately, doesn't want to--deal with it.

In her book, A Path Through Suffering, Elisabeth Elliot writes this:

Suffering, even in its mildest forms--inconvienence, delay, disappointment, discomfort, or anything else that is not in harmony with our whims and preferences--we will not tolerate. We even reject and deny it.

This is me. This has been me even in India. Always looking for ways to preserve self, to settle myself in comfortably, to watch out for me. I do it so naturally.

Then I read snippets in the Bilbe, snippets that jolt me with their dissonance to the way I am living.
"though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials"
"in this world you will have trouble"
"but it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him"

It's like I am living in a different reality. When I live by the reality of this world, suffering makes absolutely no sense. When I believe more in earth than I believe in eternity, suffering sinks me. The ship goes down fast when I see children without mothers, men without limbs, women without escape.

Why pain? Why hurt?

Here I learn, some days most harshly, other days more gently, that suffering is something from which I cannot hide. There will be no cowering in the closet until all the dark clouds pass.

Elisabeth says this also,

"I know of no answer to give to anyone except the answer given to all the world in the cross. It was there that the Great Grain of Wheat died not that death should be the end of the story, but that it should be the beginning of the story."

I have nothing more than this either. Jesus suffered. Jesus hurt. At whatever depth to which the world's most intense pain settles, Jesus went to that depth. Yes, He has heard the whole creation groaning. Even this night, when I will try to meet sleep again as questions flit and dip through me, He hears.

Now, as He died, to change the meaning of death to a signal of life, of rebirth,

am I willing to die?

Friday, November 9, 2007

in the classroom of perfect joy

God renews our hearts in little ways. This is our God, He who is the founder of that business of renewal, restoration, and redemption.

Yesterday morning, at our weekly community devotion, God reminded me of the beauty to which I am called. A curtain pulled back to reveal a glimpse of what I know but had forgotten: His Kingdom is larger than we are, and it is a Beautiful Thing. We are blessed to be His workers.

Here is a poem I scribbled with the thoughts lingering after our community time.

There is a time to weep here
Hungry hands reel me in
Like the hands that pulled His robe
to heed their sorrow, to listen to this dukkito golpo*
He always felt the tug
Even in a crowd
Son of God, He wept
Shortest verse in the Bible, I am told
In brevity, mourners find a profound peace

There is a time to laugh here
Heads thrown back, teeth revealed
Stretched-out Savior by a banqueting table
lounging with the ones who know His Name
A cup of warmish cha
five rupee biscuit pack
spilling-onto-saucer life
Surely goodness and mercy follow me
In this wide green pasture, we circle and dance

There is a time to mend here
Sari-clad ladies squatting low
holding needle, pulling white thread
stitch up the seams and rebuild the walls
Those cities called fallen
He christens Sought Out
Can I carry one stone?
I will hold your baby and smile
across the canyon the Babel made when it fell

There is a time to rip apart here
pure hearts must often bleed
lashed with angry words, bruised
Those whom He came to serve the same who beat
His secret left behind
hard to swallow sometimes
In losing life, we find
Twelve baskets of bread handed out to the masses
the world's empty hands reach in and they tear

*sad story

So many paradoxes in Jesus' Kingdom. That which I resist and shrug away, namely brokenness and surrender, are the catalysts to joy and freedom.

Today is Kali Puja, which means that today, most of this city's 15 million are paying homage to the goddess of death and destruction. Pray for our team, as it has been a heavy week leading up to this dark day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

the jet plane doesn't leave yet

Here is what I need you to pray:

That in these next five weeks, I will remain fully here. My days are getting fuller and fuller the longer I stay here, which is a good thing. Fuller days mean more to do,. I have less time to project myself into the future. (I also have less time to process through writing, so my apologies if my blogging takes a sorry swerve south...)

I get so excited thinking about going home! I get excited thinking about my mom's Christmas music resounding through our house. About waking up to coffee. About holding my adorable niece. (We're talking Gap Baby model here.) About taking my little bro to Sonic to talk about his last year of high school and how he is feeling about going to college.

If I can be honest with you, I love what I do in Kolkata, but I don't love Kolkata. I often feel scared, alone, and lost here. I am learning to cling to transcendent truth above my immediate feelings, but it is a slow learning. This makes it easy to look forward to home as some shining city of light on the horizon, the place where all my hopes and dreams will come to completion. This is not true. Some days, I think it is true. :)

So please, friends, pray that my heart will be open and soft. That I will find joy in the daily work of this India life. That I will say with Paul, "I have learned the secret of contentment...in any possible physical location on earth."

And in the meantime, I love:
-reading stories to my kids in funny voices
-holding tiny babies I meet on the street
-seeing the girls in the red-light recognize hope and reach out to embrace it
-sitting in the chapel at the Mother House

Thanks, friends, for all your love.

Monday, November 5, 2007

there have been better blog days

Normally I update my blog when I first get to the Internet cafe. But today, I wrote emails, and looked around Facebook a little bit, and read the blogs of my teammates, even though I see them almost every day. All that to say, now one hour has passed, and I should leave soon. This post will be short and probably scattered.

Life is a collection of so many meaningful moments. Sometimes I find themes and connections, and sometimes I don't.

Beth and I were on our way to a restaurant yesterday, and a little guy came up to follow us and talk. Not unusual. We were walking in an area that is often frequented by foreigners, so a lot of kids who live on the street hang out there too. He was quite the conversationalist, telling us that those two dogs on the sidewalk were his, but did we possibly want them? (As a side note, I have never seen a sadder animal than a Kolkata dog.) Beth asked him about the plastic bag he was carrying. "What's in it?" she asked. Batteries and glue, that's what was in it. If I ever forget that there is a lot of pain in this world, Kolkata is quick to remind me. But this little boy, I want to hope for him. Maybe you could say a prayer for him, that Jesus will rescue him, help him, deliver him into safety and love.

Also yesterday, I was journaling as the day wound down, and I was freaking out. Five and a half weeks left here, and part of me wants to stay, and the other part of me wants to run away as fast as I can. What will it be like to return to America? How will I be changed? How will I respond to the things that I have seen? Will I ever come back to India? More immediately, will I be able to find a job in Missouri...do I want to live in Missouri...maybe...I don't know...

All these questions. Thoughts. Fears. The resurfacing battle of living in the present, the struggle of being content with this day and this situation. Out of the foggy mess, this one thought rose:

"But I trust in You, O Lord,
my times are in Your hands." -psalm 31:15

My times are in His hands. Here and Now. It is enough manna for today.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Some call it a strike...

But I call it two days of roomie love.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Kolkata had city-wide bonds, or strikes, which basically shut down the city's transportation systems. No buses, no auto-rickshaws, no taxis. And rumors of violent demonstrations between rival political parties. All things considered, Beth advised us to stay close to home on these two days. Sounds boring...and okay...maybe it was a little boring, but the way I see it, there are a few crucial ingredients to making a lock-down at home a success. One, crayons and a coloring book. Two, good music. Three, a roommate like mine.

Consider this post a tribute to my roommate, Sheila Nicole Yoder. Without her, my time in Kolkata would be much lonelier, and I would be stuck processing the theology of pain (among other things) with the bedroom wall.

Sheila and I did many fun things on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Oh boy, this is starting to sound like a grade school report.) We played hopscotch, and we chased boys, and we fell down and scraped our knees, and we also colored. Acutally, I'm lying about all those things except the last. We really did color. See picture below.

JBU buddies Nicole, Robbie, and Sarah sent me a coloring book and crayons a few weeks ago. Turns out I really like coloring. After completing a few masterpieces which I will soon be sending to friends in the States, I wanted to keep going. Then, Sheila and I had the great idea to color a picture for each person on our team. (Um, we had a lot of time on our hands.) This morning, when we ventured out of the house for the first time in over 50 hours, we presented our handiwork to the team. As you can see, the response was overwhelming. We are thinking about launching our own website, and yes, we will be shipping to the continental 48.There was only one tense point in the entire duration of our holiday at home. That would be the point when Sheila beat me at Speed Scrabble for the fifth time in a row. I was an English major for crying out loud! These losses hurt my pride. Those who know me well (aka my family and a few close pals) know that I can respond rather vehemently to losing. Once, at a coffeeshop, I burst into tears when I lost a round of Scumbags and Warlords. I was 18. But, ahem, I'm doing much better now. Sheila and I, like all good conflict resolvers, worked things out and moved onto the next thing. In this case, a little Johnny Cash on the iPod was enough to mend the broken bridges.

In one final accolade of my roomie, I would like to praise her hair-braiding abilities. French braiding is a girl skill that has somehow managed to evade me these 23 years. I just can't do it. But Sheila, she can plait one fine French braid. With her skillz, we were able to enjoy the days off with matching hairdos ...oh yes...I know, the excitement is almost too much. Almost.

I don't know, what do you guys think? Maybe we could open up a hair salon on the side of our art venture. I mean, neither of us quite know what we'll be doing after December. We're open for suggestions...