Thursday, March 31, 2011

annnnddd we're off!

It’s odd, the things you remember. One thing I remember is seven months ago, being picked up from the airport in New York and driven to Stony Point Conference Center for YAV Orientation. During that car ride, having just met my new best friends for the year (Maggie and Jim) for the first time a few minutes before, we talked about what we looked forward to in the upcoming year—our excitement, our hopes, and our fears—and something else that seemed like it was forever away: the ‘all-india’ trip.

My memory of that conversation is crystal clear, and here’s the crazy thing: that trip that was ‘forever away’ is actually here!

In about one hour, we’ll be heading to the Kochi airport, where we’ll catch our flight to Delhi. We’ll spend the next 3 and a half weeks traveling all over North India, including Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama lives), Amritsar (home to the Golden Temple), Agra (Taj Mahal!!), Jaipur, and Bikaner (camel safari), and Mumbai. We’ll also be making a repeat stop in Goa.

This will be a LOT of train travel—the longest leg of the trip is Bikaner-Mumbai, which is about 25 hours.

We are so, so excited that this adventure that we never thought would come is finally here. Not at all a vacation, it is meant to be an educational experience that will expose us to other realities throughout India, and also give us a new appreciation for and lens through which to view life in Kerala.

In addition to excitement…we are nervous!! Well, I know that I am, at least. The last time I did any trip of this sort was when I went backpacking with Erik two summers ago through Central America (Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize, and Mexico). It was an all-around AMAZING trip but I also remember how exhausting it was. And the time that we got in a car accident and almost went to jail but instead were forced to bribe the police. But that’s another story…

As far as this trip is concerned, between late trains, foiled plans, unforeseen sickness, getting lost, getting swindled, getting lost (that deserves to be mentioned twice because if you know me you know I’m somewhat directionally challenged), and who knows what else, there’s a lot that could go wrong. But we’re prepared to face anything with a spirit of adventure—and that, along with each other, is all that we need :)

“When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

for your viewing pleasure...

Some photos from the past few months: 

“Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” –G.M. Trevalvan

Saturday, March 26, 2011

mangoes and English Bible study

The mangoes are ripening on the trees (although not quickly enough!). And yes, that merits its own paragraph. And to be included in the title of this post.

Today at Mandiram we had one of my favorite activities: English Bible study. Held once per week, it was started by a volunteer, Becca, several years ago. When asked what she would change or improve about her life as a volunteer at Mandiram, Becca said that she felt that she was lacking meaningful faith-based interactions. This makes total sense to me, as, no matter how many hours I sit in church every Sunday--no matter now intently I listen at the nightly chapel service--the fact is that I don't understand a darn thing.

Facing a similar problem, Becca started a weekly English Bible study. Mostly attended by Mandiram's paying residents, it has been going ever since. I'm going to have to start leading it soon ("this is your field now"- says Thomas Samuel Achen, who knows I'm going to Seminary next year- haha), and while that's a little nerve-wracking, I'm sure I will enjoy leading it as much as I do attending.

It's so interesting to listen to a group of highly educated people who, age-wise, could be my grandparents, and who have a wealth of life experiences and theological perspectives. Not to mention that I'm getting to revisit familiar Bible stories through a completely different cultural lens. And the diversity goes even beyond that, as those who attend the Bible study come from a wide variety of Christian backgrounds within Kerala itself, such as the Church of South India, the Mar Thoma Church, and the Orthodox Church.

While a Bible study with a table full of elderly people might not sound like your idea of fun, I can assure you that it's far from boring. In fact, it often turns into more of a theological debate than anything, and much more than a Bible study, is a platform to share stories, life advice, criticism of the institution of the church, etc. (all stemming from that day's reading). I'm telling you, some of the things that are said are really profound--I wish I could write it all down! So often I find myself thinking how lucky I am to get to listen to the conversations that take place there, and to be able to throw my own humble opinions into the fray, too.

Of course, sometimes people revert to Malayalam. But being that I spend the majority of the day not knowing what anyone around me is saying--a little bit of Malayalam interspersed throughout an engaging hour that is mostly English is A-okay with me :) 

"God gives, gives, and forgives. Man gets, gets, and forgets." (A quote shared by Mathew Uncle at today's Bible study).

fundraising, revisited

Almost two months ago, I posted a blog about fundraising. If you haven't seen it but are interested in the background story, click here. And if you don't feel like reading that, I'll give you the essence of the post in a nutshell: All international YAVs are required to fundraise $9000, which supports the year of mission service. In that post I talked about how fundraising had been a much more positive experience than I could have ever expected, and asked that anyone who was reading consider making a small contribution, as I had only raised about $4525 at that point.

Weeks flew by and I didn't give much more thought to fundraising; I had done what I could, and hopefully people would consider my request and make a donation, thus helping to continue to make this wonderful program possible.

Yesterday, I received an email from the director of the YAV Program. The subject was 'fundraising.' I nervously opened the email, knowing that it would be one of the periodic reports that I have received throughout the year with a summary of my fundraising effort thus far. It had been at least two or three months since I had gotten a report.

I am happy to say that I wasn't just writing to no one when I wrote that original fundraising post--quite a few people made donations around that time, and I am so thankful to everyone who did, whether you contributed an amount big or small. I was surprised at the identity of several of the donors, and also realized how lucky I am to have friends who, even if they may not have more than a few dollars to spare, take seriously and believe in what I'm doing as a YAV and decided to support me accordingly. To all of you--THANK YOU! (And you will be getting a thank you note from yours truly in India...but mail has proven to be slow, so don't hold your breath :)).

Thanks to your generosity, I have now fundraised $7,000. The end is in sight! Just $2,000 more to go. So for any of you who didn't see my original post, for all of the reasons listed there, I ask you to consider contributing. Simply click here (yes, I am position 4) to make an online donation.

With any luck, the next post I write about fundraising will be to share that I am DONE! :)

"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." -Albert Pike

Friday, March 25, 2011

on being a madama

In one of my posts a few months ago, I talked about my love/hate relationship with the word 'fine.' 'Fine' and I have made our peace since then. 'Fine' is just a part of my life, and I'm okay with that. 'Fine' can stick around for a while. Well, til July.

If there were another word that I had to pick a bone with, it would be: madama. 'Madama' is the label attached to a foreign woman. And usually, more specifically, a foreign white woman.

In public, it is not uncommon (it happens all the time, actually) for a person of any age to point to me and whisper to their companion 'madama!' (They are not as discreet as they think they are).

I have been assured by many, many people that 'madama' has absolutely no negative connotation and is not a bad thing to be called. I 100% believe this and am fully aware that no one means me any harm when they refer to me as a madama.

...But that doesn't mean that I like it. It's one thing to be introduced as a madama, or for people who don't know me to call me a madama. But it's another thing entirely to use it as a replacement for my name. I also don't appreciate it when, standing in a group of people, they are obviously talking about me (in Malayalam), and even refer to me in conversation, in front of my face, as 'the madama.'

I guess I should admit that even I have been known to use the word. When I went to the beach with the teachers on the staff tour, they all got a kick out of hearing me say "look at those madamas over there!" And I don't mind if someone uses the word with regard to me in that context, either. But I would certainly never use it for someone known to me personally. I realize that people may not always remember my name, and that it is difficult to pronounce, but surely there is some better substitute, such as pointing at me and saying 'her' or 'she.'

Of course, no one would think to do that because, as I said, the word is neither meant to be nor thought of as degrading--some people even seem to think it's endearing. I just feel that it's a little objectifying, that's all. The title 'madama' also seems to have an air of superiority about it, and I don't want to be superior to anyone.

When someone calls me a madama, what I really want to say is: "how would you like it if you came to my country and instead of using your name, I referred to you as 'the indian'?"  Such labels, as innocuously-intended as they may be, by emphasizing one's 'other-ness,' do little to foster feelings of inclusiveness or welcome.

At the end of the day, though, it's not that big of a deal; no one is trying to be offensive, and I certainly don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. It's just that I've always thought of myself as more of a Madison than a madama, ya know?

"When you are offended at any man's fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger." -Epictetus

Monday, March 21, 2011

wedding bells; becoming beautiful

This post was written on March 19. 

Well yall, I just finished my daily comb-out for lice. Didn't find any. That makes it a good day.

Really though, it has been a good day. Breakfast was at 8, followed by staff prayer at 9:30. At the conclusion of staff prayer, I started to get up from the table, ready to go read the newspaper in the library and see what happened from there. But K.C. Mathew Achen stopped me and said, "I'm going to a Pentacostal marriage at 10:30...would you like to come?" Ever up for an adventure, I said, "sure!" Weddings are always a fun cultural experience, after all, and I had never been to a Pentacostal wedding, much less in India.

Of course, my unexpected plans to attend this wedding required a quick wardrobe change. I had been wearing a churidar, and needed to put on a saree. So Biji Chechi and Manju Chechi, the same two that helped Maggie and I put on our sarees last time, came to my aid, and I was ready to go.

The kaliyanum (wedding- new word of the day) was supposed to start at 10:30. We arrived to the church promptly at 10:30 one was there.

Achen must have mistaken the time, I thought. I was proven wrong, however, as he began to muse aloud that even though the invitation had said 10:30, they must just be operating on 'indian time.' This made total sense, as I've had plenty of experiences with 'indian time'--trust me. Most elements of Indian society--whether social gatherings, meetings, or public transportation, like trains--seem to operate on it.

We drove around for a while and returned to the church at 11:00, and the bride, groom, and guests were just arriving. The wedding started at 11:30 (practically on time, right?) and, including the reception, lasted until about 1:30.

Members of the Pentacostal Church usually don't wear jewelry, so while the bride was gorgeous in a white saree and veil, I wasn't surprised to see her without any. This lack of jewelry, though, really stands out in the context of Indian weddings, as a whole--normally the bride's jewelry (or 'ornaments,' as they are more commonly called) is a central part of what she wears. Combined with the cost of the reception, families often go into debt just so that the bride will have the appropriate amount of gold ornaments.

Lucky for this bride's family, ornaments didn't have to be an issue--not even rings were exchanged. The wedding concluded uneventfully and K.C. Mathew Achen and I returned to Mandiram.

I decided to spend the afternoon making the rounds and visiting the residents of the old age home. As this was their first time seeing me in a saree, it wasn't long before the comments started: nalathu (good), sundari (beautiful), churidar venda (literally, 'churidar no' or 'churidar don't want'). I told them (the ones who knew enough English, that is) that I like sarees better than churidars, too...the only problem is that I can't put one on myself!

While making the rounds, I met an amachee I hadn't encountered previously: Anamma Amachee. One of the paying residents, she speaks English well and, never married, lives in the area for single people. In her excitement to meet me, show me her room, chat, etc., I could see how lonely this poor woman is. She was so hungry for company, and I was glad to fill that need as she was incredibly sweet and bubbly and I don't know how you could not love her. And in spite of the fact that she was obviously fairly affluent, spending time with her reminded me that even in the midst of financial abundance, one can be impoverished in other ways.

When I had to go, Anamma Amachee quickly told me her weekly schedule (her only commitment is that she meets a group of ladies at the YWCA three days per week to play cards) and asked if I would come on one of her card off-days to play Scrabble. Or, she would teach me a new game called cadoms. Or, we could just chat and eat watermelon. Or, she would help me learn something new in Malayalam. Or, she could show me photos of her siblings and their children. Or...

I assured her that I would certainly be coming back; we set a Scrabble date for Tuesday.

I contend that a saree doesn't make me or anyone beautiful. Rather, "our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life...all of our life." (Henri Nouwen) 

Scrabble isn't on the list, but I think maybe that counts, too.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

stuffing envelopes, a science experiment, and semantics

This post was written on March 14. 

Even though I still don't really have a fixed schedule, I've started showing up in the library (a room in the main office with--you guessed it--books, but more popularly, several different newspapers of the day) each morning after breakfast to read the newspaper and see what happens from there. I figure I'm bound to find more action there than in my room.

While that doesn't always prove true, today, it did. I was in the right place at the right time. The wardens were given the mundane task of stuffing envelopes with fundraising letters to be sent out. There were hundreds of letters; hundreds of envelopes. Seeing an opportunity to be useful, I quickly offered to help. The five of us sat around the table, folding letters and stuffing envelopes, for about two hours. That might sound miserable, but I was just thankful for something to do. 

Right about when I wasn't sure if I could fold another letter, one of the wardens, Jijo, announced that we were going to make sopa podi (soap powder). Not sure if I was fully understanding (soo many questions that had to go unanswered: Did I hear you correctly? Soap powder? What are we going to do with it? ...And how, exactly, does one 'make' soap powder?), I did the only thing one can do in such language-restricted situations and went with it. I knew I would find out what was going on eventually.

I followed the wardens and a few other people who had been recruited to help into a small building I hadn't seen before. And I watched as industrial-sized barrels of assorted liquids and chemicals were pulled out and measured into different drums for mixing. Several wooden paddles were handed out; I was given one and instructed to mix.

I observed with increasing interest as one dry substance was added to my tub, followed by another liquid, almost gelatin-like chemical. As I stirred, the mixture started to billow and balloon, increasing in volume, and giving off physical heat. Then, the tumultuous-ness of the concoction subsiding, it started to become recognizable.

I had heard correctly--we were making soap powder! (AKA laundry detergent).

Ignorant of the chemistry involved in the process, I marveled at the now-recognizable powder that had materialized before me. We poured in on a flat surface, used a rolling pin to crush clumps, and added fragrance and little colored beads. It looked like laundry smelled like laundry was laundry detergent!

After about an hour we had produced several large barrels of it. I'm pretty sure I inhaled enough toxic fumes in the process to last me a while, but it was still a neat thing to do. I don't know what will become of the laundry detergent--perhaps it will be distributed to the residents of the old age home? Perhaps it will be sold?--but I'm sure the answer will make itself known eventually.

Following that little science experiment I helped serve lunch, as usual. Then, I went to Mandiram's nursing school, where I taught English to the first year nursing students. I went to their class last week, too, and it has so far been really enjoyable. Their English is much more advanced than any other class I have ever taught (really just due to their age/education level--they're all about 20 and their nursing courses are in English). The fact that they have mastered English so well is fantastic, of course, but it also leaves me wondering, 'well geez, what am I gonna teach them??'

As my hour with them came to a close, I asked if they had any questions about today's material. There were whispers as they consulted with one another, and I could tell that they were trying to goad one girl into asking me a question. I had a feeling it would have nothing to do with English; in fact, I knew what it would be before the words even came out of her mouth: Do you have a lover?

You heard (or read, rather) right: Lover. Go ahead, laugh. In the US, we refer to someone with whom we have a romantic relationship as a boyfriend or girlfriend. In India, there is no concept of 'dating' as we know it, but the term that is used if one is in one such relationship is 'lover.' Here, if you say 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend,' people will think you are talking about a friend who is a girl, or a friend who is a boy. Having girlfriends or boyfriends of the opposite sex can be scandalous in itself, but the really scandalous thing is to have a lover. This is a society, after all, where marriages are arranged and the 'personals' section of the newspaper is filled with people looking for brides/grooms. (I'm not saying anything negative about arranged marriages, by the way--there are actually a lot of positives to the practice; I'll have to blog about that another time).

It always makes me laugh when someone asks me if I have a lover, because I try to imagine that language being used in the US. Picture yourself asking your friend, in all seriousness: Do you have a lover? ...I'm sure you find it equally absurd. For us, the word 'lover' sounds extremely melodramatic, and is not something we would ever say. However it's the word that is used here, and, as fellow females close in age, I figured the nursing students would ask me eventually.

"No, I don't" I replied. "Do YOU?"

 Shy peals of laughter erupted. And so class ended on a giggly note. I smiled to myself all the way back to the office. 

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." -Victor Borge

Monday, March 14, 2011

rising temperatures and (now) familiar faces

One phrase I that I hadn't heard before coming to Mandiram, and have heard several times since arriving, is, "why don't you go take some rest?"

...Rest? What's that?

While I was often almost always busy with one thing or another at Buchanan--and don't get me wrong, I loved it--the concept of taking time for rest has been a nice change of pace. Throughout the course of the past two weeks, I have, at random times, been able to catch up on some reading, write some long-overdue email responses, and even--gasp!--take a few naps.

Part of what makes the after-lunch 'rest' time almost mandatory is that it's just so HOT! Summer has arrived to Kerala, and it's here in full force. I have even resorted to lying on my (comparatively) cool tile floor, directly under my ceiling fan, to get some respite from the heat. You know that hot water I was so excited about? Haven't used it once.

But enough about the weather. I want to tell you about a few now-familiar faces, and in the process acquaint you with Mandiram a little more. First, however, a quick explanation:

In a recent post, I mentioned that Mandiram is a home for the elderly destitute--'amachees and appachens' who have no family or resources of their own. This is true, and the majority of the elderly who live here fall under this designation. Mandiram is also home, however, to 'paying residents.' The paying residents live in apartments (where I live, too) that are in a separate area from where the amachees and appachens of the old age home live. The paying residents are from well-off backgrounds and all seem to be highly educated. Many of them speak English fluently and have children who are married and successful. As far as I can tell, they have moved here to enjoy a comfortable, happy retirement without having to worry about keeping up a large house, etc.

SO, on to the familiar faces. One is Tangama Kochamma, a paying resident. She and her husband (I don't know his name?) are staying in one of the apartments temporarily while their house is being remodeled. While perhaps a little too interested in my daily affairs and comings and goings, she means well and really has gone out of her way to introduce me to people and help me learn my way around. What I find most interesting about her, though, is her husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. He is oftentimes silent, but will randomly pipe up with perfect English in moments of lucidity. We've had the same conversation more than a few times.

Mild-mannered and quiet, he is such a contrast to his outspoken wife, who he often meekly trails behind. Tangama Kochamma, at the age of 75, is hearty, robust, and healthy, physically and mentally. If she despairs over her husband's deteriorating mental condition, she hides it well. But I can't imagine what it would be like to have to shepherd your life partner around, seeing them inhabit a shell of their former self, knowing that the day will come when they won't remember you at all. It makes me sad for her. In the moments I find her to be particularly overbearing, I try to remember how isolated she must feel and treat her with extra kindness.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum is Manna, a two-year-old member of the balika (orphanage). She is quite possibly the most precious little girl I have ever seen. She has the brightest eyes, cutest dimples, and most adorable smile. She was brought to the balika the day she was born, and, as, no exaggeration, the happiest baby I have ever known, has obviously been very well-loved and taken care of here.

In the US, we associate the word 'orphanage' with a temporary, miserable place where children must bide their time until a family comes to adopt them. I have no idea how this system works elsewhere in India, but I can speak for the balika Mandiram, where adopting the children out is not a practice. When the children are brought here, this is their home. They have a 'mother' who takes care of them, as well as a full-time tutor to help them with their studies outside of school hours. Together with their mother and tutor, the girls of the balika are their own little (well, actually rather big) family, and function as such. They are a bright spot in the lives of Mandiram's staff and the residents of the old age home.

One of the balika girls, Soni, is in 12th grade at Maggie's YAV placement, Nicholson School. K.C. Mathew Achen (who you may or may not recall is my supervisor at Mandiram) invited me to accompany him to Nicholson the other day for the graduation of the twelfth grade students. A prominent person in the community, I assumed he was going because he had been asked to speak at the ceremony. Shortly after we arrived to Nicholson, I scampered off with Maggie. A few minutes later, we entered the chapel, where the graduation ceremony had just started. The graduating 12th grade students sat in the front of the room, flanked by their families who had come to support them. I was confused to see K.C. Mathew Achen sitting in the audience, rather than on stage. My appreciation for him grew as I realized that he had not made the hour-long journey to speak at the graduation, but rather to be the face of Soni's Mandiram family.

One of my new friends at the old age home is Krishna. Short in stature, he is probably close to 80. Like the rest of the residents of the old age home, he speaks no English. Krishna's legs are being visibly crippled by some disease unknown to me, and he has dental and eyesight problems. He walks with a distinct, bow-legged hobble that I can now recognize from any distance. We cross paths most frequently at mealtimes, when I serve food to the residents of the old age home. Whenever Krishna walks into the dining hall, he never fails to seek me out if I'm nearby. He always shakes my hand and with a huge smile will strike up a simple conversation in Malayalam. I always look forward to running into him and seeing his face light up.

A very lively group that I have yet to mention are the 4 male wardens: Nibu, Jijo, Abraham, and Roy. They are all either currently in or plan to enroll in Seminary. Partof their training is spending 1-2 years living and serving at Mandiram. They lead nightly chapel, help serve food at meals, visit the residents of the old age home, do administrative tasks in the office, etc. While I'm here, I'm doing a lot of the same work as them. Jijo is my age, although he looks much younger, and the other three are in their mid-twenties, I would guess. Nibu has been especially helpful in acquainting me with Mandiram, and I know that he and Tyler (Mandiram's YAV last year) were/are good friends. Nibu also speaks more English than the other three.

It's funny how much I've been subconsciously impacted by living in a gender-segregated society; six months ago, if I had gotten on the bus to see women crammed in the aisle at the front when there were several open seats among the men at the back, I would have thought 'are they crazy??' and headed straight for an open seat. But now I know that you just can't do that. I found myself in that exact predicament the other day, and instinctually stood crowded amongst the women, envying all the space that the men had.

I mention this small occurence in order to relate it to my interactions with the wardens--I am thrilled to be around people of my own age, but am often unsure how to act around them. Mealtimes are a great example: usually the wardens sit at a table together, and as I walk up to find a seat, I am faced with two options: sit with my peers, who are also incidentally male, or sit at the next table over--the 'girls' table--alone. My desire to be friendly and with other people (regardless of their gender...what a novel concept) trumps my concern for propriety; I sit with the boys. I'm not sure how big of a no-no this is, and no one has said anything to me yet; I doubt they will. I just can't bring myself to sit alone at my own table because I am a girl. However, when there are women at the 'girls' table, I sit with them.

I never expected how much serving at mealtimes would help me get to know people. Going from table to table and ladling out chor (rice) or meen (fish) curry, I've started remembering who sits at what table and even some of their food preferences. I know who likes extra achar (pickle), for example, or who won't want any at all. One face I have grown to recognize among the many is a man who actually looks quite young; maybe around 55. Whenever I come to his table, he is more often than not armed with a question for me in almost perfectly accented English. It's usually somewhat creepy, like "how old are you?" or "are you married?" However I always give him the benefit of the doubt and answer honestly and with a smile. I'm sure he means wel and is just eager to show off his English. More than anything, I wonder how he--a seemingly 'normal' (whatever that means, right?), healthy, average person--ended up in Mandiram's home for the elderly destitute. It reminds me that everyone has a story.

There is one man who gets a kick out of quizzing me on the names of the food items of the day. While I learned food names long ago, I sometime indulge him and let him 'teach' me one. There is another man who, when I serve him, looks straight at his plate and doesn't acknowledge me or anyone else. Outwardly, he appears to be in good health. The only thing I know about him is that he was brought to Mandiram by a pastor who found him on the side of the road when traveling here from another state. He never speaks.

"Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle unknown to you."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

saree adventures and reasons to celebrate

Yesterday was an exciting day in the life of the Church of South India. And in my life, too!

With regard to the former, the consecration of the new bishop of the Madhya Kerala Diocese took place. This was a huge affair! One for which we (Maggie, Jim, and I) were told we should be well-dressed and presentable. For Maggie and I, this meant wearing sarees. Which presented a slight problem. Maggie would be spending the night with me at Mandiram as her site, Nicholson School, is too far away to have been able to travel to the consecration the same morning and arrive there in time. And since I am new to Mandiram, I didn't know who, if anyone, would be able to help dress us.

Being the confident young ladies that we are, we thought, 'heck, it can't be that hard. We'll just practice the night before and it will be a piece of cake the next morning.' didn't go so well. We were up until almost midnight trying to master the art of tying a saree, and we failed miserably. It was SO funny. And upon giving up we had to acknowledge that there was no way we could show up to the consecration looking like we had haphazardly rolled ourselves up in a sheet that we secured with a few strategic (or unstrategic, rather) safety pins.

Feeling helpless and out of options, we pretty much decided that we would have to resort to getting to the cathedral extremely early and begging the first females that arrived to take pity on us and help dress us. Part of me wishes that that scenario had actually occured, as I think any Malayalee woman would have been tickled to death by that and it would have made for a great story. But we were saved from being the laughing stock of the church when one of Mandiram's nursing students, Manju, was able to come to my room the following morning to help us dress.

We arrived to the cathedral church, where the consecration was taking place, an hour and a half before it started so we could get seats. And as Jim observed in a text that he sent me during the service (he was not sitting with Maggie and me as he was on the men's side, and we were on the women's): "this is like the who's who of Kottayam amongst Christians...actually probably not just Kottayam." And he was right. Five thousand people were expected to be in attendance, but I've been told that the actual number was almost twice that. The consecration and installation lasted about three and a half hours, and then lunch was provided for everyone, after which there was a public meeting.

Jim, Maggie, and I skipped out on lunch amongst the thousands and decided to go to a nearby restaurant, instead. On the way, Jim needed to swing by his room (he lives near the cathedral church) to get something. Feeling lazy and not wanting to walk all that way, I decided that I would check my email at a nearby internet cafe while waiting.

In my inbox, I found some amazing, life-changing news: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which has been my first choice all along, was offering me a full scholarship to start my Master of Divinity there in the fall. (On a side note, for those of you who read about it in my facebook status, or are reading about it here, my intention is not AT ALL to brag--being in India, I just have no other way to share the news with friends/family, and don't have enough internet time to send personal emails.)

Far from wanting to boast, I am in fact very humbled and also petrified wondering whether or not I wil be able to live up to the expectations that the wonderful folks at LPTS have for me. My most sincere hope is that my theological education at LPTS will only be the beginning of a life of service to the church and that somehow, some way, through that life of service and my interactions with others, I can repay this huge gift with which I have been so undeservingly blessed. I am so thankful to all of those who have helped bring me to this place, and most of all, to God.

I AM SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :) :) :) :) :)

"Love life, engage in it, give it all you've got. Love it with a passion, because life truly does give back, many times over, what you put into it." -Maya Angelou

Welcome to Mandiram, and being present, the remix

This post was written on March 2.

So let me tell you about the amazing place that is the Mandiram Society, an ecumenical Christian organization that's doing a lot of good. It's comprised of a hospital, a home for the elderly destitute, an orphanage, and a nursing school. The hospital provides healthcare to the residents of the old age home, as well as the surrounding community, regardless of ability to pay. The home for the elderly destitute meets every need of its inhabitants, who would otherwise have nowhere else to go, free of charge. Many of them are mentally and/or physically differently-abled. The orphanage is the home of 13 girls, ages 2-16. Mandiram is run by a staff whose humility and attitude of servanthood and compassion is easily apparent and is an inspiring example of how we should all strive to live. 

Really, Mandiram is a very special place to be. It's crazy to me, though how much my context has changed. EVERYTHING is different. I used to be surrounded by children; now I'm surrounded by the elderly. I used to be just another girl in a sea of girls and a nearly all-female staff of teachers; now there are men everywhere I look. My sole purpose used to be teaching English; now, the people I interact with have no desire to learn or need for English. Where am I?!?! 

At Buchanan, I was in my element. I love kids. Not knowing Malayalam wasn't a big deal because the language of play is universal. I quickly bonded with the teachers. It was all so natural. And it wasn't always easy...but oftentimes, it was. However, I don't think that 'easy' is the point of the YAV year. So in a way I think it's really good that I've been put in a place that is not my element; that will actually be a challenge; where I will have to work to be and feel part of the community.  

Further proof to me that a setting like Buchanan is my 'element' is that after lunch today, when given the freedom to explore Mandiram and interact with whom I wished...I went straight for the balika (orphanage). I don't think this was necessarily a good thing; in an unfamiliar place, it was just where I was most comfortable. So I promised myself that I would play with the girls for an hour, and then, like it or not, go visit some of the amachees and appachens who live at the old age home. They, not the children, are the primary group with which I am supposed to be interacting. ('Amachees and appachens' literally means grandmothers and grandfathers--respectful titles used to address men and women of that age bracket, even if they aren't related to you). 

Perhaps you are wondering why I was so apprehensive about going on my own to visit the amachees and appachens. I think a large part of it is that Mandiram is just so new to me and I feel kind of lost and like I don't know where I'm supposed to be or what I'm supposed to be doing at any given time. But another component of my uneasiness is, to be honest, just an overall lack of experience being with the elderly. And in my case, it's compounded by the language factor. We all know, after all, that old people love to talk and have wonderful stories to tell, but the extent of my Malayalam conversation-making skills doesn't go much farther than "sukham aano?" (how are you?) and "kazhicho?" (have you eaten?). So, that's a problem. And what I keep wondering with regard to the amachees and appachens is, in light of my language can I enrich their lives? What can I do for them? How can I make myself useful?

Of course, the answer is that it's not about doing but being. You know, that whole ministry-of-presence thing. At Buchanan, being present was easy. I think it's going to be a much bigger challenge here; not quite so effortless. And it will take an entirely different shape from my ministry of presence at Buchanan. But again, I think that's a good thing. It's going to be a GREAT learning/growing opportunity, that's for sure. So stay tuned for updates about how it's going!

"When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure." -Peter Marshall

starting over

This post was written on March 1.

I had a full day at school. I went to the tailor to have a blouse stitched for the saree that I had recently purchased. I attended evening prayer. I played cards with the younger girls. I went to dinner. Having never been a big fan of packing, I didn't start packing until about 10PM, spending the time before that with the TTC students. Hari and Merlin helped me pack; at about midnight I told them shubharatri (goodnight) for the last time. And so ended Monday, my last full day at Buchanan.

This morning, I finished packing and cleaning my room. I had breakfast. I said goodbye to the first year TC students as they left for class, and gave my favorite little fifth graders a number of hugs before they left, too. The second years didn't have class, so they chose to stick around with me. And then...we waited.

KC Mathew Achen (my supervisor at Mandiram) arrived to pick me up at 10AM, as promised. I maintained my composure as we loaded my things into his car, and I said goodbye to the TTC second years and Suja Teacher, Binthu Teacher, Sanila Teacher, and Jaimol Kochamma, who came to see me off. KC Mathew Achen and I got in the car and started for Mandiram.

 Even though today was my first time meeting KC Mathew Achen, his reputation preceded him; I've heard wonderful things about him from several people. And my interactions with him thus far have confirmed everthing I've heard; he is a very, very kind person, and I look forward to getting to know him better (although I am going to miss Jaimol Kochamma so much, every day. I'm sure she will read this eventually...hi Kochamma! :) I miss you!)

Since arriving to Mandiram this morning, I've been shown around and met lots of people. Currently, I'm attempting to unpack. Speaking of which--whoa guys. My room. Or apartment, rather. I feel like I'm at the Ritz. I have HOT WATER. A fridge. A kitchen. A whole new selection of books. A porch!

Although to be perfectly this moment, I would trade all of that for my little room at Buchanan. The biggest shock of today has just been the overall feeling of starting over. And this whole starting over thing isn't easy. Once again I have endless names to learn, a campus with which to familiarize myself, a routine to find and adopt. This is especially difficult when I have just left a place where I know and love everyone, could walk around the campus in the dark, and have an established routine that works so well. But I know that I'm here for a reason and that this part of my YAV experience will bring unanticipated joys and challenges, just like I have experienced at Buchanan.

So bring on the unexpected, God. I am ready.

"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on." -Havelock Ellis