The Other

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Tonight, I sink in memory foam

but I remember the mattress on which I used to ease myself in India–the thin, dirty one I came to love.

Other travelers, with their own obedient dreams, had slept on it before me, and so I didn’t mind resting my sooty, unsandaled feet on it at the end of a long day.

Now forced air hurries through my bedroom vents like an American promise, and I listen.

I do listen.

But I remember that wall-mounted AC that cost so much to run right before monsoon in that other life when the air swirled like steam in my lungs and I prayed earnest prayers about the electricity staying on all night.

That mattress, that AC, those prayers still live somewhere

though I soak in tubs of endless hot water now

and have cut off all my hair.

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A Momentary Love

I hesitated before publishing this very personal vignette about a time in India when I actually did what I felt compelled to do–not because I’m ashamed of it, but because the topic of charity, especially among the poor in a country not one’s own, is fraught with landmines of misunderstanding.

We do what we do largely for ourselves.  Any good we accomplish is often as much for our own well-being as it is for others’, and is never quite enough.  It’s complicated by mixed motives because our souls are marbled with selfishness and self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, for Christians, loving others is to be the outworking of God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).  It’s that simple, and that difficult to live out.

So I offer the following, not as a pat on my own back, or as an instruction, but as an introvert’s journal entry on the way to love.

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I sit in the coffee shop with my husband and kids and we’re spread out around a clean table, sipping lattes and lemonades. The air conditioning sends luxurious blasts of chilled air down onto us and I feel as if I’ve been wrapped in silk.  Opposite our table stretches a huge window out of which I can see the dusty Indian street we’ve just walked. I let my eyes slide over its endless clots of auto rickshaws, its streams of rainbow-clad humans. Then I see her squatting under the shop’s awning.

At once the still, small voice that compels me whispers His purpose.

Go to her.

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My heart beats hard and fast because I am a coward. Even in India, when offered a hundred grace-soaked chances to do what is right in the face of a thousand wrongs, I quake. I am the one who scrapes up the courage to speak ten seconds after beggars have pushed past me, one who is frustrated by her frozenness.

My children search my face. They aren’t facing the window like I am, and they can’t see the woman who crouches with her two small boys on the ground in front of it. They ask me why I look sad. I tell them that God has moved me, that I’ve determined I will obey him this time, that my heart is beating so hard it hurts. They turn in their chairs to look outside.

Before I can talk myself out of going out into the wretched heat to speak to a woman I don’t know, in a language in which I stammer, I shove my chair out from behind me and stand up. I walk out of the shop, and as I do I feel the eyes of the beautiful, shiny-haired Indians who have money to pay for lattes boring into my back.

The air outside is difficult to breathe. It’s dense with the fumes of diesel fuel, fried foods, and dank streams of liquid waste. I am instantly damp with sweat. I kneel before the woman. She stares at me with yellow eyes and an open mouth. I drag a quick breath through burning nostrils, praying in the back of my mind, and I say,

How are you, sister? in Hindi.

The woman sizes me up for a moment, then answers me with a thick accent I do not recognize. She tells me that life is hard with no husband. She is alone, from Bihar, she says, and has these two boys. She begs only because she has to. Even so, and she looks me in the eye when she says this last part, people are not kind.

As the woman speaks I realize that can understand her and I feel a kind of euphoria spread over me, though her words are hopeless. At the same time I notice that she is not sweating, even under this angry sun. I rest a hand on her desiccated arm.

Two shopkeepers have come out on their front stoops to watch us. I am aware that I’m facing the coffee shop window and that my children and the patrons are staring at me as if I’m acting in some strange silent film.

I tell the woman that Jesus loves her. That he sees her and her sons. I say this in childish Hindi. She nods and sways but I can’t be sure she has any idea what I’m talking about, and I beg God to fill in the terrible chasms I’ve already left in his Story. I hand her a bottle of water and she takes it, smiling. I am ashamed at how insignificant it is.

I ask her if I can pray for her and she nods again, but I don’t know the right words. I shift and hear my knees pop. I decide to pray in English.

Dear God, please. Please. Because of Jesus. Because you love her and her boys. Amen.

I’m crying now and can’t think of anything else to say.

I open my eyes and hand her a wad of rupees. She takes it cautiously, with the gentleness of a lady, and it makes me want to give her everything I have. But I’ve caused a scene and I have to go now. I stand up and clasp her hand. It’s rough and old, though she is still young enough to bear children. I offer a wobbly smile and walk back into the coffee shop.

I can feel a shift as I sit down at my table. Only God knows what he plans to write in her difficult story. All I know is that, this time, I was a little bit faithful. And I’m not the same.

Ordinary Deaths

My kids got an up close taste of death yesterday.

It’s not like they didn’t know it existed before this.  We’d seen the lifeless body of a woman floating face down in the river in Nepal once.  We’d watched bodies on biers move past us on their way to funeral pyres in India.  We’d passed dog carcasses wearing blankets of flies, the smell of them slapping us in the face as we walked to a friend’s flat.

And in the US we’ve been to funerals, stared into open caskets at faces that don’t look asleep.

We’ve had to peel our beloved dog off the road and bury her before her time.

But yesterday was different.  It was a shock and, though it’s something that happens every day in the world, it reminds us that we aren’t home yet.

An Addendum

People think that if you’ve been up close to suffering, human or otherwise, that it puts things into perspective for you.  That you pick your battles carefully, that you don’t get bogged down with petty sorrows because you know how bad things can really get.  They assume that you’ve had to grow a little tough, or else go crazy.

Maybe all that’s true, to some extent.  But I’ve found that experiencing the suffering of others (in India, and in other places) along with some of my own, has given my heart stretch marks, instead.  It’s made it baggy and soft and able to hold more–more sadness, probably, but I hope more love, too.  My heart’s weaker than it used to be, and less efficient.  I cry too much about things that used to escape my notice.

But that’s ok.  It’s a price I’ve been willing to pay in order to get down low, and I don’t regret it.  And, anyway, it just means that things like this,

DSC_1452are more apt to make me smile.

So here’s to those of us with worn, flabby hearts that can’t keep things in proper proportion.  I’m trusting there’s a reason for softness.

Surviving America: A Dog Tale

Somebody stage an intervention.  She’s writing about dogs again.  And reverse culture shock.  And finding a new normal.

…My husband and I didn’t want a puppy after returning to the US, but our kids had begged us for months. Living in India for three years had provided us enough adventures to last a lifetime, we reasoned, and we didn’t need to add a dog to the mix. After all, we’d visited the Taj Mahal, and piled on top of elephants, the five of us riding together. We’d celebrated Diwali with our neighbors and attended a friend’s lavish Sikh wedding. We had lived with monkeys, rats, and mongooses…

Read the rest here.