Thursday, December 23, 2010

photos and cherokee wisdom

Click here for some photos from November.

After a fast-paced but fun morning (Buchanan's christmas program! More on that later), and a long, standing-room-only train journey to Aluva...we made it! Maggie, Jim, and I are now at Thomas John Achen's house, where we will be spending Christmas. It's 1:30AM here, so that's all for now. Buenas noches :)

In lieu of a quote, a popular story that I thought I'd share...

'An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One wolf is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."

The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old cherokee simply replied,"The one you feed."'

Monday, December 20, 2010

the beauty of busy, the beauty of nothing, and my Buchanan stage debut

This post was written on December 18.

I’d like to thank all of you who have given me such positive feedback about my blog. The emails, facebook wallposts, etc that I’ve received throughout the past months are all nice reminders that I’m not just writing to myself. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that while I could write for days about my latest cultural observation, or the random sentiment of any given moment, I kind of suck at the whole writing-about-what-I’ve-actually-been-doing thing.  So I’ll try to give you a summary update every once in a while.

Today is Saturday and this is my first ‘nothing’ weekend in who knows how long.  ‘Nothing’ doesn’t mean nothing, of course…today, before 9AM, I had already been to prayer, gone jogging, had breakfast, washed clothes (HANDwashed, mind you (sorry, just gotta throw that in there)), and cleaned my room.

By ‘nothing’, I mean it’s the first weekend that I haven’t had to attend one or more major activities away from Buchanan. In past weekends, these have included visits to different churches, two different Harvest Festivals, the Kottayam Mixed Voices Choir Concert, celebrating Jim’s birthday, finally seeing Harry Potter!, and a memorial lecture given by Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. 

While each of the above events could probably merit its own blog post, time won’t (nor your interest, I’m sure) permit this as the power is currently out and my laptop battery life is running low. Suffice it to say that they were all super :) This weekend, however, has so far proven to be an enjoyable time of rest and relaxation with the hostel girls. Sometimes it’s nice to just do nothing. Even if ‘nothing’ is chores.

Other noteworthy events of the past few weeks…
-attended a housewarming
-went on a fieldtrip with the students of one of the Lower Primary Schools where I teach on Wednesdays
-went to a funeral. Betty Kochamma’s brother passed away :(

In addition to these events, the normal routine has been progressing as usual. Teaching English at 5 different schools keeps one busy, you know. Also factor in the writing project, my Spanish class, visits to the KNH hostel, activities with my own hostel, and the myriad activities that have been occurring—well, I’ve been a busy girl!

On a parting note, I will tell you that last week I was asked to teach a dance to some 5th grade students for the Buchanan Christmas Program, which is taking place on Thursday, December 23. This has been more of a joy than I ever could have anticipated, and it is more than obvious that the girls are thrilled that I’m teaching them. They have picked up the steps well, but have trouble remembering the order; without my direction, all turns to chaos. So while there were originally supposed to be 11 girls dancing to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ on stage in front of the 1000 students and teachers of Buchanan, there will now be 12. Except one of them isn’t in 5th grade. She’s actually 22.

“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias” –William Allen White

Friday, December 17, 2010


‘Madison is gregarious and a friend to all.’

This was my kindergarten teacher’s yearbook description of five-year-old Madison. I’d say that seventeen years later, that’s probably still true.

Sometimes I like to tell people just how much I love them, just for fun. Sometimes I like to talk about totally random things. Sometimes I like to ask questions about others’ opinions on controversial topics. I like to know about the experiences of others; what brought them to where they are today. I like to talk out what’s been bothering me; I like to be available for other people to do that, too. I draw energy and fulfillment from such interactions.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard to be gregarious or friend-ly when you don’t speak your community’s language. And having to sort of ‘subdue’ myself has been a challenge about my time in India that I never really foresaw. Rather than discussing life experiences, I discuss how many members are in my family; instead of talking about world views, I talk about if I’ve had tea that afternoon or not.

This is frustrating at different times and for different reasons. It’s frustrating when I want to tell Sherly Teacher how I love that she calls the cooks “chechi” (a respectful title for an older sister), which I’ve never heard any of the other teachers do. It’s frustrating when I want to ask Divya why she’s been crying, and see if I can help her in some way. It’s frustrating when I want to know about Gracy Kochamma’s life; her interests; her background. But I just don’t have the words, and neither do they.

There’s a lot of redeeming qualities about this sometimes difficult reality, though. Number one, I appreciate the meaningful interactions that I do have all the more.  The people I can speak to freely—Jim and Maggie, Thomas John Achen and Betty Kochamma, Jaimol Kochamma, and a small handful of Buchanan students—are like a breath of fresh air. I have also come to appreciate my simple interactions with the rest of the students and teachers even more. In the Malayalam arena, while discussing whether I’ve already had tea or not isn’t exactly higher-level subject matter, let’s remember that it wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t say even that. And on the English side of things, I know that many of the people by whom I’m surrounded are uncomfortable conversing in English, especially in front of a native speaker, so the fact that they make an effort to begin with is in itself something for which to be thankful.

More than anything, I am lucky to be part of a community that I love, and who (I think?) loves me—even if we don’t have the words to say it.

(But for the record, “I love you” in Malayalam is njan ninne snehikunnu :))

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…” -Charles R. Swindoll

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A public letter to Mrs. Melissa Joiner

This post (letter?) was written on December 11.

Dear Mrs. Joiner,

It’s funny how sometimes the most random moments stay with you. One such moment I’ve spoken to you about before—it was in your 9th grade English class. An impressionable little freshman (can it be that almost a decade has passed?), I remember that I liked your style. And I remember being so intrigued by your energy and enthusiasm.

I can’t say with certainly whether it was I or another student, but someone commented on these qualities of yours. It is your reply that has stayed with me throughout the years. You said something to the effect that you expected the best from your students, so shouldn’t we expect nothing less of you in return?

I have frequently thought of your words in the various contexts—work, school, or otherwise—that I have found myself in since, some near and some quite far from Vanguard High School in little Ocala, FL. Did you ever imagine that this admirable ethic of yours would continue to impact me 8 years later and 8,000 miles away?

I tell ya, this teaching thing can be tough. There are times when I just want to yell quite loudly at little 5th graders to stay in their seats, or even to throw chalk at them. Sometimes, with my 8th graders, I want to give up trying to make them stop talking, instead letting them continue and taking a nap at my desk, figuring that they probably wouldn’t notice, anyway.

But then, I remember your words. I smile as big as I possibly can and, fighting the desire to yell, speak a little more sweetly. I summon a little more patience from who knows where and proceed with my lesson. Sometimes, I think the children are amazed at my reaction to what they know is bad behavior. But you know, there’s some sense in the whole give-what-you-hope-to-get philosophy. It’s really kind of Ghandi, be-the-change-you-wish-to-see -esque, when you think about it.

I wish I could say that it always works. But even when it doesn’t, there’s more than adequate consolation in knowing that even when dealing with little hellians, I did the best I could. In fact, I’ve got a small piece of paper taped by my bedroom door, right at eye-level so that I always see it as I walk out; it says, ‘are you giving your best?’

Of course, there are days when that little paper totally mocks me; days when I know I probably didn’t give my best. The really rewarding days, though, are when I can return to my room, see that small paper out of the corner of my eye, and with much satisfaction, think, “yes—I really did.”

So thanks for your wisdom, even all these years later :)

Love from India,

“When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.” -William Arthur Ward

my love/hate relationship with the word 'fine'

This post was written on December 8.

How would you typically respond to the question: ‘how are you?’

Chances are, you’d say ‘I’m good.’ Or, for you grammar-conscious people out there, you might say ‘I am well.’ Or if your day hasn’t been so fabulous, perhaps you’d say ‘I’m okay’, or ‘I’m alright.’ If it’s been a REALLY good day, you might say ‘I’m great!’

In Kerala, however, there is only one answer to the question ‘how are you?’ I would be willing to bet that 999 times out of 1,000 (I would say 1,000 out of 1,000, but hey, you’ve got to account for the one person who doesn’t know even this basic phrase in English and stares at you blankly), ANYONE will automatically respond with the same 3 words, without fail, every time: I am fine.

In the US, if someone says ‘I am fine,’ they probably mean that they are NOT fine. But here, there seems to be only one state of being: fine.

Frankly, I have grown to hate this word. The reason that I had to say ‘love/hate’ in the title, however, is that now I’ve fallen into the trap, too. I am ‘fine.’ When someone asks me ‘how are you?’, it has become an automatic response: I am fine. Even if I’m not fine, I say, ‘fine.’ And if I AM in a pleasant mental state that could be likened to fine, I say ‘fine.’ And immediately after think “what is happening to me?! Since when am I ‘fine’?’!?!”

I guess I’ve got to face the fact that ‘fine’ is going to be part of my life for the next 7 months. However, I very much look forward to, 7 months from now, being ‘good’ once again. I’d even settle for alright. Or not-so-good. Anything but FINE.

One of these days, maybe I’ll tell someone I’m spec-freaking-tacular. At least I’ll know what I mean.

Update: Just so you know…all of the above is only written in mock annoyance. …Sort of :)

“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there's all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” -Arthur Gordon

Friday, December 3, 2010

a day (or two) in the life

This post was written on Wednesday, December 1.

Just for fun, and so you have an idea of what an average day looks like, here’s a play-by-play of my day today.

6:20: woke up
6:30-7: morning prayer
7-8:30: read the newspaper, got dressed, reviewed/modified the day’s lesson plans
8:30-9: breakfast
9-12: taught 4th grade English class at Pakkil Lower Primary, and 3rd grade at Mooledom Lower Primary
12:30-1: Lunch
1:30-2:30: taught 4th grade at Buchanan Lower Primary
2:30-3:30: checked email and studied Malayalam
3:30-5: Visited the girls the KNH hostel, a home for underprivileged/orphan/semi-orphan students of the various school’s on Buchanan’s campus. We played games, talked about favorite movies, and just hung out. My weekly visits to these girls are based on the principle that any English interaction, whether formal or informal, is good for them. Plus, it’s fun—for all of us.
5-6: taught Spanish to some students from my hostel. This Wednesday, 5PM class is a recent addition to my schedule. They asked me if I would teach them, so I am J I also teach Spanish to 6th grade students on Thursday mornings. (Who knew that Spanish would be so handy in INDIA—thank you, Mrs. Baker!). It actually helps their English, too. Since I teach Spanish through English, the girls are able to review basic English along the way.
6:30-7: evening prayer
7-8:30: wrote some email drafts, cleaned, finalized the next day’s lesson plans.
8:30-9: dinner  
9:00 (yes, I am an old woman!): read, then went to bed

Since each day is different, here’s a play-by-play of yesterday (Tuesday). Instead of going to different schools, the day was spent entirely spent at Buchanan.

6:20: woke up
6:30-7: morning prayer
7-8: read the newspaper, got dressed, reviewed/modified the day’s lesson plans
8-8:30: breakfast
8:30-9:10: Met with the ‘Writing Club.’ I meet weekly with a group of students from all grades who are working on pieces for the English publication we are putting together. We aim to have it finished by February in time for Buchanan’s anniversary. I assist them with the writing process, editing, etc.
9:10-9:45: assembly
9:45-12:35: taught two forty-minute periods: 7th grade and 5th grade. In between these classes, I hung out in the staff room.
12:35-1:15: lunch
1:15-3:25: taught 3 forty-minute periods, all 8th grade
3:25-4: took the bus to nearby town, Chingavanam, to pick up a churidar I was having altered.
4: tea time!
4:15-5: laundry
5-5:45: taught exercise class (zumba)
…the rest of the evening was spent in the same manner as the first description.

Anyway, between those two days, you get an idea of what an average day is like. It feels like I am always going from one activity to the next, but I’ve found that my busiest days are often my best. Life is good :)

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” -Helen Keller

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

thanksgiving, retreat numero tres, and harry potter (...)

At a Jain Temple in Wayanad
In India, Thanksgiving was on November 24.

Let’s backtrack: In India, Thanksgiving wasn’t at all. Except for at Achen’s house, that is. And we celebrated a day early due to the fact that we would be traveling all of the next day. Our destination would be Wayanad, the location of retreat number three.

The aforementioned Thanksgiving celebration was much anticipated by us India YAVs, especially since there was rumor of pumpkin pie.  Luckily, the rumors were true!

In accordance with my question-asking nature (I’ve been told I ask a lot of questions. 1) this is accurate, and 2) I own that title with pride :)), I asked the Thanksgiving table the following—What are you most thankful for? –and made each person answer. While we each had several things to mention, what resonated with me most was Maggie’s reply: laughter. So obvious but so true. I was reminded of Bill Cosby's words: “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

After a hectic morning and the long journey to Aluva, there was something very simple and wonderful in sitting around the table and enjoying each other’s company, remembering the things for which we were thankful, and laughing a lot, too. Although there’s nothing really profound about all of that, since isn’t that what Thanksgiving’s supposed to be about, anyway?

We awoke early the next morning to take the train to Wayanad. The main purpose of this retreat was to learn about tribals, a group of people who have faced similar struggles as Native Americans in the US. In the context of India, like dalits, tribals are often poor, discriminated against, and have little access to quality education, etc.

At one point the government had a big initiative to give land to tribal people. The tribals, however, were given the land without any accompanying education about such matters. They were in turn taken advantage of by people who offered them a little money and a lot of alcohol in exchange for their land. Not knowing the value of money, they fell into the trap. The result has been tribals working land they don’t own, and widespread alcoholism.

Speaking of which, we spent the weekend at a de-addiction center, which is also the home of a Mar Thoma achen, his wife, Anjana Kochamma, and their adorable 1 year old son, Aaron. (By the way- ‘Achen’ is the title by which one addresses a pastor; ‘Kochamma’ is the title used for a pastors’s wife. 'Mar Thoma' is the name of a Christian denomination here in Kerala). Anyway, they live at and are in charge of the de-addiction center.

One night, we accompanied them to an AA meeting, where two men were celebrating one year of sobriety. It was actually incredibly moving to be a part of that event. One by one, each person spoke about their experiences, the length of their sobriety, their triumphs, and their challenges. Some could boast over 50 days of sobriety; some over 300; some over 1,000. Some could merely stand and say, ‘by the grace of God, I have not partaken of alcohol today.’
Beautiful Wayanad

The vulnerability, trust, and support that we witnessed in that community was really amazing. At the end of the meeting, Jim, Maggie and I were asked if we wanted to say anything. I stood and told everyone that I admired their strength and courage to be there on that day; that there was no bigger gift that they could give to their families. Achen translated all of this, of course, but one didn’t have to speak Malayalam to sense the profound sense of not only struggle, but also community in that place.

On Monday, Jim, Maggie, and I were to return to our sites. We decided that on the way, we would make prolonged stop in Kottayam so that one of our dreams could finally come true: seeing HARRY POTTER. Let me tell you, a lot went into putting this plan into action. We took an earlier than necessary train from Aluva so that we might arrive in time for the 11AM showing. We were worried that the train would depart Aluva late, but much to our delight everything appeared to be on schedule and at the designated time, we were on our way to Kottayam.

The train ride to Kottayam is two hours long. Strangely, however, three hours passed and there was still no sign of Kottayam. We thought this was maybe due to the greater than usual number of stops the train had been making. After a while, however, we began to get nervous, and as the clock ticked past 11 and 11:01, it became obvious that we weren’t going to make the 11AM showing. We quickly devised a Plan B—we would see the 2PM showing—and Jim went to ask someone if we were nearing Kottayam.

He returned to Maggie and I with some interesting news: we were on the wrong train! Apparently, just because the train we were on had arrived at the time OUR train was supposed to leave didn’t mean that it was, in actuality, our train. Having no idea where we were, we disembarked at the next possible stop, Haripada (which is curiously pronounced just like Harry Potter, but without the ‘r’ at the end), and, learning that we were about 1.5 hours diverted from Kottayam, made it our next mission to reach Kottayam at all costs by 2PM. To this end we hired a taxi, which cost a ridiculous amount (in rupees…it wouldn’t be considered that much in dollars, especially compared to taxi prices in the US), and off we went. A little late, sure—a little detoured, sure—but Harry Potter was in sight.

We arrived to Kottayam a total of five hours after we originally departed Aluva. It was 1:50. Having no time to leave our bags at Jim’s place, we rushed to the movie theater with all of our bags in hand. We knew that as soon as we were seated in the air conditioned movie theater, hearing the beginning sounds of the Harry Potter theme music, the crazy journey would be worth it. Full of joy and anticipation, we approached the movie theater.

Harry Potter was no longer playing.

We weren’t sure who to blame—India? Harry Potter? JK Rowling???—and found ourselves relying on that time-tested cure, laughter. And you know, the whole debacle just might have been worth it for how funny the Buchanan teachers found the story the next day.

Tuesday, I was walking around Buchanan and was approached by a group of 5th graders. Shyly, they held out a card. Puzzled, I opened it—it was a Happy Thanksgiving card that they had made themselves. This was primarily amazing because it means they actually understood my Thanksgiving lesson!!  Also, it was very thoughtful of them to make me a card for a holiday they don’t even celebrate, and whose knowledge about said holiday is limited to the fact that it has something to do with being thankful and a turkey.

Totally not Thanksgiving-looking, with two hand-drawn parrots on the front, lettered in tropical colors, and covered in flowers—it’s probably the best Thanksgiving card I’ve ever received.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow." -Melody Beattie