Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What Do I Tell Them?

from Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

Circumambulating the shrine of the saint, I contemplate the one great matter. My eyes are open just a crack, enough to walk, enough to catch a glimpse of my old friend Hannah -- we flash surreptitious grins and signal. Chai? Ten minutes? Whenever. Three minutes later we’re across the street on folding chairs with cups of chai, surrounded by a small audience of beggars we’ve also known for ten or twenty years. Turns out I’m very lucky to get to see Hannah. In 3 days she will return to Switzerland, her native place, to which she has rarely returned since coming to India in 1980. Her mother is very elderly now and she worries dementia may be setting in. “Every night after dinner she watches a movie, that is fine. But my sister says that for the last month it has been the same movie every night and she does not seem to notice.” “How does it feel to go back?” I ask. “It will be difficult,” Hannah says. “It is Spring. It will be beauty-full. The city is grand and clean. But then there are people, and they ask questions, and what do I tell them?” She gestures around us at the temple and the roaring street, at the beggars and sadhus and peacocks and cows, at the street dogs and dour-faced foreign devotees, at India. “People want to know what I do,” she says. “What do I tell them? Do I say that I walk clockwise around statues, temples and hills? Do I say that I practice simply being, or that I just try to be quiet?” She shrugs. “Usually I tell them I work at the animal shelter. I haven’t worked at the animal shelter in years, but you have to tell them something.” We imagine explaining to a roomful of Swiss professionals, “Every time my mind wanders, I ask myself, To whom does this thought occur? To me. And who am I?” We end up giggling, but the truth is it’s hard to go back. It shouldn’t matter what other people think, but it does. We agree that people respond in one of two ways. There are people who feel envy, because they somehow imagine that I have my life and their life too. Like I am on an extended vacation and I will one day return to a magical home where I have all the things that they do: house, spouse, career, truck, dog, garden, phone, benefits, TV, stereo, fishing gear, power tools, storage unit, time share, photo albums, memorabilia, old friends calling out as they walk in carrying beers. People don’t understand that the price of this life was that one. The second category of people assume that I am pathetic, self-indulgent, or mad. On my bad days I team up against myself with those people, the noxious clan that lives primarily but not entirely within one’s own mind, a parasitic psychic worm one might as well call the Inner Facebook. “But we cannot judge anyone those people either,” Hannah reminds me. “The ones who stay in the West. Because their lives seem freak-ish to us too, isn’t it?” “In the United States of America, many people sacrifice everything in the hope that they will one day be elderly in Arizona.” We shake our heads in bewilderment. The American faith is a strange one. “It doesn’t matter if I feel like a freak in Switzerland,” Hannah says. “I must help my mother. She was a good mother. She helped me to stay in India.” By now we’ve given up and bought chai for several of the beggars standing around us. Because they really are going to stand there, hand out, for as long as it takes. Several ashrams provide meals, but everyone needs tea. I fall into my usual complaints about America, like the way every conversation starts What do you do? Hannah interrupts me. “Yes, it’s irri-tating. But look at it this way. In a way it makes sense, the way people talk. What are we doing here? We have 80 or 90 years, perhaps much less. What do you do? What do you do? What do I do? Could someone please tell me what do I do? “Yes, maybe they want to feel they made the right choice, that we are freak-ish to fly away to India but -- in fact we are all just trying to figure it out. What do you do? What do I do? What does anyone do?”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

My friend Tukaram posted this on Facebook, and I commented, "The grace that ceaselessly provides the customized challenges/opportunities needed for growth has unlimited resources, cares not what society or circumstances we're in. Meeting challenges, accepting opportunities, is the thing. And, consciously/overtly seeking doesn't guarantee more success/development than any decent person might gain via any well lived life. So hows about we dispense with the, yet more, largely useless parameters with which we divide humanity. Parameters which suggest superiority, as parameters are apt to do, but particularly ironically in this case."

He said, "...I feel though that Hannah erased the parameters with her last phrase "What do you do? What do I do? What does anyone do?”