Friday, January 25, 2008

pat answers, true riches

In last-minute fashion, I met with my friend Ben yesterday. Ben lives in Southern California. I happened to be in Southern California for three weeks, but somehow, catch-up coffee did not happen until a few hours before I was supposed to leave for the airport. Hum.

Over decaf, Ben asked me about the contrast between Southern California opulence and the poverty of the city where I made my home last fall. That Ben, he asks some tricky questions. Now, I allow this question--and its multiple answers--to run wild in the privacy of my own mind, but inviting it into the wide, open public makes me a bit uncomfortable. Like I might say things that offend people. Like I might make brash, sweeping judgments that I am not yet ready to adhere to myself. Like if we let this question join us at our comfy two-person Starbucks table, he might begin to flail his arms and make a rucus. I fell silent. I thought for a minute. I resorted to a sensible answer. (Read: "avoid-big-waves answer.")

"Well," I said. "Kolkata and Southern California are very different. I've found it's too hard to live in a constant state of comparision. I have to accept them as two different worlds and try to live my best in each of them."

There is a bit of truth to that, I think. But I think I might have also given the cop-out answer. The problem with completely compartmentalizing my Indian world and my American world is that, very likely, I will forget whichever world is least convienent and most uncomfortable. India, for those of you still wondering.

I don't want to be the nagging voice which constantly reminds others of the disparity between what they own and what most of the world does not own. We know we're wealthy, here in America. It's not that we don't know. We know, and we want to maintain that wealth. Because that "other world," that peculiar and distant world that could sneak into our hearts if we took a look at its hands and feet, feels so very far away.

I will be the first in the line of people who don't really want to make a change if personal comfort or independence are going to be the opportunity cost. That's why the answer I gave Ben is so nice for me. That answer is my good friend when I buy things I don't need. It's my buddy when I start scheming on how I can live a swanky life again. And it sings me a lullaby when I close my eyes to what I have seen and drift off to sleep.

I don't know what answer I should have given Ben instead. But I don't want complacency to be my co-pilot.

What I am going to do? How am I going to live? I am simultaneously excited and scared to have a seat in the classroom of daily American life. I will be here for a bit, as far as I can see. We will see what the Teacher says. He is surely relevant to Missouri 2008, the Jewish Rabbi who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation."

Oh Jesus. Have your way in our hearts, and let us see that You are the wealth we truly desire.

"...that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." -Colossians 2:2-3

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Maybe tomorrow will not be like this"

I love Sandra McCracken's music. I love that I can listen to six songs on her Myspace site for free. I love that I can write blog entries while her voice serenades me.

Rachel and I watched God Grew Tired of Us last night. It's a documentary about the Lost Boys of Sudan. In 1987, when Muslim troops swept through southern Sudan, thousands of young men fled to escape execution. They walked hundreds of miles to temporary relief in Ethiopia and then back across Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya. The film follows the lives of three men from the Kenyan camp who were granted immigration to the States.

My friends Annie and Brian introduced me to this documentary, and I wanted Rachel to watch it. Typically, she avoids movies that have anything to do with war. After I convinced her that the war footage was very, very minimal and that the documentary is mostly of the lives of the refugees once they reach America, she gave in.

One of the men, John Bul Dau, said that when he was on the trek through sub-Saharan Africa, he looked around at his emaciated friends and wondered, "Did God get tired of us?" Maybe it was the end of the world as the Bible talks about, he thought. Maybe God was tired of humans, and that was why they were starving in a desert. No more family. No more home.

After the movie, I sat in the dim lamplight of Rachel's living room. I wanted to pray for Sudan. I wanted to pray against war. I wanted to ask for peace. I wondered, "Am I praying for things I will never see?" My friends in Kolkata say that they dream for things they will never see. So, yes, I thought, maybe I am praying things that I will never see. What else can I pray? I will offer up these words pleading for peace. I will ask again for hope for the thousands who have no home. I will beg that men lay down their swords and pick up love.

God has said, and I believe: He is near to all who call on Him.

If you'd like to read more about John Bul Dau, this is a good article. And I'd encourage you to watch the documentary!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One heart on the way down Hadley Street

Rachel and I were driving the other day, she behind the wheel and I beside her, little sidekick Abby asleep in the back. Rachel does most of the driving in California, as a) it's her car and b) LA traffic is scary and c) I rarely carry my license with me. (And once driving without it got me a hefty ticket and a few days later, the worst haircut of my life. I'm not sure how much correlation there was between the ticket and the haircut, but it all happened on the same roadtrip. Aww, college.)

We were stopped at a red light when I asked about the house on Hadley Street. It's a older house, white and flat-fronted. Dignified architecture. The house itself seems to say, "Why yes, I have lived in these parts for a very long time, and I've been a good citizen." But everything surrounding the house says, "Sorry, sucker, your time has passed." Spare tires, old machinery, wire towers with cactus, broken pots, and garden tools ooze out of the carport and onto the lawn and into the spare lot. The pumpkin was what really caught my eye. Think giant and orange. Think the species of larger-than-life inflatable lawn things Wal-mart markets to zealous holiday decorators. It was fully inflated in the front of the carport when I walked by the other day, set on top of an empty papazan chair frame, tilted at a funny angle. That, I thought, has to be at least semi-intentional. I can understand owning a pumpkin (well, sort of) and having no place to put it, but it's January. Why would you have an inflated pumpkin sitting around in January?

I asked Rach if she knew who lived in that Hadley Street house. "Oh, I don't know him personally," she said. "But he's a widower, and apparantly, his house looked normal before his wife died. Now it looks like that."

Today, Abby and I went for a walk, and at the end of our loop, we headed down Hadley Street. The pumpkin was still there, but today, it was flat. We were a few yards past the white house when I saw an older man in front of us. He had velcro shoes with the flaps unfastened. Tan pants and a dark brown suit jacket. "That's him," I thought. He was walking slowly. When he came to the intersection, he stopped in the middle and looked back before shuffling to the other side. Confused. We came up behind him, and he heard us. He stepped into the dirt bed next to the sidewalk and let us pass. He turned his face to look at Abby, and I saw his chin and cheeks, stubbly, unshaven, gaunt. On the left lapel of his jacket, there was a blue plastic nametage. "H. Knight," it read. His eyes lit when he saw my chubby niece, asleep in the stroller, brown-shoed feet stuck straight out in front of her. He chuckled. "Hello, sir," I said, half-expecting him to strike up a conversation. Babies make friends out of complete strangers, I am finding. He didn't say anything, only smiled, and so I walked on.

I walked on. I walked away.

He wasn't like my friends in India, many of whom were so open about their need. When I walked away from them, I turned my face from grasping hands and pleading cries. My heart tore with the pressure of the pain and the dilemma of how to ease it. Today, my heart tore too. I wasn't expecting that, not here in a historic suburb of LA, on quiet and tree-canopied streets. He didn't ask me for anything. He didn't even ask me for a few moments of my time, a few moments of small talk in the stretch of a lonely day.

I will not be able to forget poverty. It's not just in Kolkata, I thought as I turned the corner to my sister's driveway. It's here too. It is in the kind and perplexed face of the widower. Whatever his monetary net-worth, it's absolutely more than that of an average Indian citizen. But his dearth is the lack of companionship, family, love. The walk alone instead of with a wife. The yard gone to pot, perhaps because nothing seems worth keeping up anymore.

The poverty of love is the hardest-hitting.

Oh, how we all need love.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

this present day

I have a wise and thoughtful uncle who wrote me letters in college, and among the pulls of papers and meetings and RA-ing and hanging out with friends far too late into the night, I wrote him back a few letters myself. At intervals, he would send along books with the letters. I am reading one of them now, happily positioned in the peach and blue recliner a family from my sister's church gifted to her. She is married to a seminary student, and seminary students are a good population to give old furniture to. With all the time I have recently found like an inheritance tucked away in a safety-deposit box, I am reading for pleasure, not for a grade. This is a good thing.

The book is a collection of essays by a columnist for World Magazine. Her name is Andree Seu, and she writes with a wit and succinctness I covet. She is one of those writers whose pen (and mind) I wish I could borrow. And never give back. Anyway, she writes this in one of her essays about traveling home to her parents in Rhode Island for the holidays:

"When I arrive home--or is Pennsylvania home?--the lesson, alas, is the same I learned last year, and the year before: that all earthly homes produce as much longing as satisfaction, are signposts and not the city itself. And I thank God both for the foretaste and the vague yearning that keeps me headed homeward, keeps my heart on pilgrimage."

Hmm. I identify with these words. They uncover my tendency to mortify the present. No "earthly home" is ever quite what I am looking for. So I fret about the past and pin my hope on the future and scorn the current pasture.

In today's prayer, I ask this: that God, in His great mercy, would give me the grace to catch sight of heaven's weight in the flimsy and quickly going stuff of earth. In the longing and yearning and in the tasting of satisfaction, I would keep walking Homeward. Live faithfully in the moment at hand; not forget that there is a sequel that will outlast the current volume by a few million pages.

The shadow is coming to full color soon.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

On the way to the airport...

Nathan: You know, it really gives me hope that Sylvester Stallone is 60. Maybe I could be Rambo at 60.
Rachel: I'm not sure I wholeheartedly support that dream, honey.

Me: I think you'd make a great Rambo, Nathan.

Nathan: Thanks, Lara.

Me: But I don't even know who Rambo is.

Rachel: Yes you do. He's that guy who was a boxer in like five movies.

Me: (Pause.) No, that was Rocky.

Rachel: Oh. (Tilts head to the side and sticks the tip of her tongue out. Thinks.) So, who was Rambo? Aren't they almost the same?

Nathan: Nope. Not at all.

I'm in Southern California, where oddly enough, movie actors and their roles are easily confused. At least by folks like me and my sister. I flew into the LA area on Thursday, and I'll be here until the end of the month, visiting my sister, her husband, and my niece! (Who deserves italics just for being her.) There is no agenda but daily life. Since Abby's birth eight months ago, my sister has become a stay at home mom, and for these few weeks, I get to join the routine. I am basking in all the glory of being an aunt, a situation I find increasingly glorious.

It's looking like a quiet set of 21 days. For which I am thankful and content. I want to journal and start running again. I want to write emails to friends I haven't heard from in a while. I want to write even more letters, because for all the charm of an email, I'm still a fan of the paper envelope and its contents.

After the California vacation, the current plan is to head back to my home state for a bit. I'm not sure how long I will stay in Missouri, but I'll definitely be there until the summer months.

The future feels so very vague, and it seems that I am back in that place of last winter, when I was making lists of various options for the next step after graduation. I have to remember that the God who opened the doors to Kolkata is surely the same God who stands before the doors of 2008, and that a year later, He cares for me and my path with just as much compassion and might.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Life, currently

I put on a brown cable knit sweater this morning. "This sweater," I thought, "is a nice warm sweater." Secretly, I was proud of myself for picking a sweater, because occasionally, it happens that I fail to dress myself warmly enough for winter weather. Those days, when fashion wins out over comfort, I spend the whole day cold. And I feel silly.

Missouri must be extra frigid this season. Despite the Rather-Plain-But-Incredibly-Practical-Brown-Sweater, I was shivering in the kitchen by mid-morning. Hopping up and down next to the tea kettle as I waited for it to whistle. My mother came to the rescue with one of her sweaters, a gray woolen wrap-around that she tossed over to my stove-top post. "Here, put this on," she said. Brilliant. Another sweater. Why don't I think of these things?

The layers keep growing. On top of my two sweaters, I am now draped with the most beautiful blanket I own. It's one that my friends at Sari Bari made. Five layers of old saris; the outer two layers are shades of my new favorite colors, deep red and golden yellow. I smell the blanket, and it still smells like Indian laundry detergent. Smell it again.

India is like a old friend I never see anymore but cannot forget. Across the bridges between high school and college and post-grad life, I've said good-bye to my share of dear friends. For weeks and months after the official goodbyes, faces bounce through my memories and prayers. Often. Daily, even.

Only two and half weeks gone since I flew from breeze and coconut trees to snow and ice. At this point, I still think of India every day. I am scared that India will stop popping up with such frequency. My friend who spent a year in Africa warns me of this. "It hurts to remember," she wrote to me. "But it hurts even more when you stop remembering." I carry that fear of India evaporating off of me, disappearing. That I will set her in a hall closet somewhere, behind the vacuum and the box of clothes to give away to Goodwill, and forget where I put her. Maybe even forget she exists.

I'm trying to remember. I pull the sari blanket around me tightly. I read the blogs of my teammates. I play Boggle with my family, a word game my team played every Sunday afternoon. Sand slides through the game's timer, and I almost write down words like "shey" or "ghat" before I remember that they are Bengali words, and as such, will not garner points here in America.

The little things remind me of the big things. Of God and His Kingdom. Of the garden He is still planting and tending in Kolkata. Of my friends who choose every day to stick around in that city a little longer, to pour out a bit more water.

I am glad and thankful to be home. There is, however, a tension in my heart that was not there four months ago. A pull toward the face that is yet vivid and bold in memory's cupboard.

I ask you to remember India with me. Help me remember when I am beginning to forget. To keep praying, to keep hoping, to keep offering up our lives for the work which is not finished.

I also want to share some moments of home...
Boggle time! Kristin, please note that we do not have Super Boggle. Sad loss. But, also please note that I am training my niece up right. Starting her on Boggle at a young age.
Right now, she likes to eat the pen and paper best. I think, though, that she will begin finding words very soon. She's a bright baby.
I had the awesome gift of spending last weekend with my best college friends. I couldn't have hoped for a better reunion. Laughing and talking and singing commenced as if we'd never been apart. Oh, how I love these three girls.

Happy New Year to all!