Thursday, December 30, 2010

Application Phase: Complete

Well I finished sending in my applications for graduate schools today. Actually I finished sending all the documents of typed essays and manuscripts and curriculum vitaes to my mom who will print and sort them into their prospective labeled envelopes and trek down to the post office for me. Have I mentioned my mom is extra fantabulous?!

If you count the beginning phases of researching schools and working on the manuscript to be submitted with the applications, I’ve been working on this process for nearly a year. If you count studying for and taking the GRE then it’s even longer. I closed my laptop over nine hours ago but I’m still sighing with the satisfaction of completion. I feel like there’s a big empty space in my brain now, like having a new, blank room in your house. There’s all this creative energy waiting to be found—picking colors, arranging furniture, decorating the walls, inviting guests. I have room to think about other things.

Like writing.

I have some long-lost fragments of stories I want to dig out of the corners where they have been shoved. I look forward to conundrums of my characters coming to keep me awake at night rather than the puzzle of how to make myself appear qualified for a teaching assistantship in a one-page essay without coming across as an egotistic teacher’s pet with a head the size of an elevator. And I look forward to India processing more freely inside my head. It’s kind of like Christmas inside my brain.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Ache

My heart is aching from the absence of India. The past two weeks have been a time of wordless processing. It’s hard sometimes to find things to say or even things to think about regarding this time of my life that is now out there in the past, yet forever altering the way I think and choose to live for the rest of my life.

I’m finding my moments of grieving and gratitude and wonder. I’m starting to realize that it’s not India that I miss… not exactly. Life there was so raw, so throbbing, so stretching that it forced my heart to its knees every day. Daily time and tasks and relationships pulsed in such a way that reminded me hour by hour—I need him.

That need has not changed. It never will. But it’s so much easier within a Western environment to believe that is has, to fool myself into thinking I can stand on my own two feet and walk through a day alone. There are more distractions again. Electronics, air con, movies, restaurants. It’s not that I’m wanting for time, but the mental clutter can be a bit overwhelming, making it hard to settle back into his presence and just be. So although I love so many aspects of India—saris, bus rides, rice and curry, dirt floors—what I’m really pining for is simplicity. Even as I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Laos I’m listening to sounds of things making noise… clanking, clattering, thudding, dropping, scrapping. I think back to the slums where the only loud sounds were the voices of children hailing our arrival.

I think it’s the battle of the 21st century to learn to shut out the noise, to wade through the world of conveniences and comforts we have built for ourselves that turn into a prison of their own kind. It’s our task to confront electronics and shut them off, and when it’s not possible, to train the ears of our hearts to be listening moment by moment for the still small voices buried beneath the clatter. India will haunt me until I do. My heart will break if I don’t.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Christmas in Laos is subtle. Everyday I forget that Christmas is coming, and then every day Jennie and I look at each other and say, “Oh yeah! Christmas.” I love the holiday here because it doesn’t slap me across the face every time I walk into a mall, or demand my attention through shopping lists, talking Santas, or radio advertisements. There are no decorations to speak of, there are palm trees in view from the back porch, and the weather is still warm enough to break a sweat. I won’t even hear festive music unless I turn it on or sing it.

Christmas is quiet, hidden. It’s there for those who know where to look; otherwise the rest of the country will go about the day in normal working fashion. It reminds me of the first Christmas, shared only by those who had the ears to hear and believe angels, the foolhardiness to follow a star, and the eyes to look for a little bundle tucked away in a hole in the earth. It’s a day, in many ways like any other, to pause and remember, to be grateful for Immanuel—God with us.

Many of my friends call me a scrooge; and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always have the fondest feelings for Christmas. But I don’t hate Christmas. I just don’t like it western style. I prefer the subtlety, raw beauty and awe with all the clamoring bells and whistles stripped off. So this year I think I’ll be stopping to enjoy it. Jennie, Eric and I will get creative in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, and Christmas day we’ll stay in our pajamas, share simple gifts with the kids, keep the gate locked, and watch holiday movies. It may just be the quintessential holiday.

For all of you at home, of course I miss you. I’ll miss digging for costumes with my siblings for our living nativity Christmas morning. I’ll miss eggnog and conversations by the fireplace. Your smiles and hugs. Snow. I’ll even miss my helping of sweet potato casserole. But I won’t miss the clamor or piles of wrapping paper. I’ll think of you all tucked in snuggly with your families and my heart will assure you that I will be home soon… but not quite yet. And I’ll wish you all a Merry Christmas—in the subtlest of ways.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


It’s been nearly two weeks since I wrote, and I do so now as an act of pulling my brain and heart out of the fog from within which they have sought to reside.

I’m not in India anymore.

Everyday I state to myself the obvious because it’s hard for me to believe. Or maybe it’s not that I don’t believe, it’s just I don’t want to, or I can’t figure out how that changes everything about how I now need to live. If I’m not in India anymore, then how am I supposed to act? What do I need to let go of? What am I allowed to keep?

I have paused to ponder over the past few days how I would view this new country different if I had come from the States rather than from India. I have no doubt that coming here first I would’ve fallen in love with Laos at once. I don’t have hostile feelings toward this country at all, but I find the difficulty is that I must begin to relinquish the immediacy of India so that my heart can be free to love another culture again.

Coming from India, Laos feels incredibly western (a fact I’m told might change if I had the opportunity to go out into the villages). The houses seem huge, the menu diverse. There are white people everywhere—especially within the social world of my host family. Last night I sat in a beautifully furnished living room with a fully decorated Christmas tree, soft couches, and perhaps 12 western women sharing snacks and coffee. I could’ve sworn I was somewhere back home. So every day I’m faced with a choice not to compare one lifestyle to another, a choice to push past the culture shock and refuse to judge.

The change comes slowly. I cling to similarities like the lack of carpet and the way the bathroom is arranged. I’ve submitted to using a fork again, but only part of the time. I’m still washing my clothes by hand and I’m still wearing my saris and salwars because there is nothing else in my suitcase (but I’m not sure I’d stop even if there was). Jennie likes to refer to me as princess Jasmine. I sit on the porch and I can still see palm trees. It’s still hot outside. There are mosquitoes. Motorbikes fill half the streets. These things tell me I’m still in Asia.

And in Asia there are always new adventures to be had, like riding perched side-saddle behind Eric on my borrowed bike while he peddles us back through the streets of downtown from finding a shop to air up the tires. Then I took the bike with my own two feet and peddled down the street while traffic passed around me, my salwar scarf blowing behind. The scents of Lao spices and rice shops and a million other unnamed things hit my senses in waves. Then I lock up the bike and enter a completely western bakery where I sit in a room with air-con, eating a bagel for the first time in over four months and writing this post while working on letters for graduate school applications. And I try to put all the pieces of several different worlds together somewhere inside of me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

By Name

They call me Daniella. When I first arrived and tried to introduce myself as Danielle they looked at me with a bit of confusion. “That’s a boy’s name they said,” in traditional bluntility. So for four months I have become Daniella. When I introduce myself now I pronounce the ‘a’ without thinking. I love the way it rolls off the tongue with an added touch of grace of rhythmic melody. Its absence will leave a little ache in my heart. So if anyone wants to call me Daniella when I come home, go right ahead. I will probably one: not notice the difference in the sense that it will be so familiar I won’t look at you strangely or two: emit a sigh of happy reminiscence of India.

They call me other names too.

Acca or Didi means older sister in either Telugu or Hindi. It’s a mixed term of respect and endearment. I’ve learned to say it back to women I work with day by day.

In the slums and when I am giving tution (tutoring) I am Teacher. The vehicle will pull up to the village and the children will come running. “Teacher, Teacher, they exclaim breathlessly, their eyes filled with excitement. It’s easy to be a teacher in India. Sometimes they look at me so trustingly that if I told them I hung the moon in the sky they might believe me.

The children and teachers at another school call me Madam. “Good morning, Madam,” their voices greet me every time I arrive. “How are you Madam?” “Had your breakfast Madam?” I might protest at the title, but then I have to realize that it’s their way of loving me. So I learn to love it too.

My young piano student calls me Auntie. Her feet race across the broken rocky ground of the campus when she sees me. “When are you coming, Auntie?” is her relentless question. Monday, I tell her and always have to fend off puppy-dog eyes and requests for me to come sooner.

There are so many names and each one carries a wealth of experiences and faces with it’s calling. I shall miss them so much. It makes me think of how names carry our identity. These sounds represent who I am to the people of India and who they have become to me. I have other names too, names from other countries, other friends, names that will only make sense to me and the people who gave them.

Names are important. As I face my goodbyes I draw comfort from knowing that no matter how many people come to love me or welcome me into their lives, only one opinion ultimately determines my identity. God has called me by name. So I listen for his voice—quiet, assuring—knowing that it will not change when the rhythms of my earthly name do. When all is changing round me I cry out, “Abba, tell me who I am again. Remind me. Carry me like a child all caught up in your arms, your head bent over, whispering in my ear the entire way.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Feet

So Tuesday was my last day at a school. The students, teachers, and I were all consumed with exchanging hugs, taking pictures, saying goodbyes, giving letters and layering the day with blessings. All the Indians were especially focused on begging me to come again in July. At the end of the day they requested me to give a final dance. So with the entire school watching and Indian music blasting, I kicked off my chapels (sandals) and began to dance with fervor.

What I didn’t know was that dancing barefoot on a tile/cement floor that has been baking all day in the Indian sun will burn the bottom of your feet. It will give you two-inch blisters on the balls of your feet to be precise and some extraneous ones on the toes. So after pretending to be completely fine for the benefit of the teachers and students and riding back in the jeep for an hour, I limped my way into the clinic for some icepacks (aka month-old frozen grapes from a friend’s freezer) and for the nurses to dress them.

A friend and I laughed really hard multiple times through the process at the ridiculousness of the whole predicament, and the fact that I would get myself into such a scrape just five days before leaving the country when I am trying to finish so many things and say goodbye. One brother propped me on the back of his bicycle and wheeled me to my dorm when we were finished.

Yesterday I spend most of the day in my room, but today—blisters or no blisters—I am going out, hobbling on the sides of my feet. I am reminded that I must never take anything for granted, even the ability to stand straight on one’s own two feet.

The hope is that I will be able to walk straight by Monday morning when I will have to navigate two airports, two shuttles, and one hotel with three pieces of luggage single-handedly on my way to Laos; although Amy assures me that wrapping my feet in gauze and asking for a wheelchair would be the VIP way to travel. The Indians are hoping that I will be able to dance for them on Sunday. I’m not too sure about that one, but if they ask for a miracle and it comes then I will happily dance my heart out for them again (minus the scalding stage floor).

The proverb of the week: Those that learn to laugh at themselves will never cease to be amused. Believe me, I’m laughing. I hope the pictures bring you all some comic relief as well.