All shall be well
October 10, 2022 § Leave a comment
At the end of summer, I packed the car with a cooler, a plump duffel bag, and two paper sacks of medicine. I got up early, and with a thermos of hot coffee in hand, hit the highway west out of Dallas.
I was headed to the desert. But I was not sure if I would make it.
The last two times I had attempted a trip of this magnitude, I’d canceled at the last minute because of my poor health. This time, I felt stronger. But it wasn’t until ten hours later, when I parked in front of a small cottage in the heart of a canyon encircled by dry desert mountains, that I realized I was stronger. Strong enough to make it all that way.
I’m pretty sure there were more wild javelinas than people in this Far West Texas outpost. It was quiet, but not still. I watched the long grey ears of a jackrabbit disappear into the underbrush. A stag paused beside the tangled thorns of a mesquite tree. Dozens of birds clustered in the juniper bush outside my bedroom window—red cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds.
I was there to write, and read, and rest. But mostly I was there to see if my body could withstand it.
On day three, I attempted a drive down the mountain to visit the one grocery store in town. The car bottomed out on the dirt road just as the sky started spitting rain. I was convinced I’d punctured a tire on one of the road’s sharp rocks. I turned around at the nearest pull off.
Back at the cottage, the Internet was out. It was raining hard now. Thick ribbons of hot water streamed across the road. This is flash flood country. The dry ground can’t soak up the rainwater fast enough, and rivers appear in minutes where before was only dust and stone.
All the fear from my years of illness—of sudden, unexpected, and debilitating catastrophe—flooded my mind, creating an empty crevasse where common sense normally exists. I held my phone up to the window in search of service that was as elusive as the mythical jackolope.
As quickly as it came, the clouds cleared. I looked out the window at the chirping birds.
I thought, Look at the birds of the air.
I thought, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
There, hanging like a Crayola drawing between two mountain peaks, a shimmering rainbow appeared.
I am not one who takes much stock in rainbows as signs. But there was something comforting about this bow, which evoked the happiness of a carefree child, the kind of peace that really does pass understanding. I decided to believe in it. To believe that, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, All shall be well.
Julian would have earned that phrase given she lived during the Black Plague, which wiped out something like half of the European population. All shall be well meant something deeper than, “everything will turn out all right.” It meant the very matrix upon which creation rests is moving toward flourishing. It meant that, despite many signs pointing to the contrary, at the heart of the universe lies a profound and trustworthy love.
The next day, I hiked for two miles. My body worked in ways it hasn’t in over a year. It was cloudy all weekend, so I never saw the Milky Way. But that rainbow lasted nearly all afternoon.
This post originally appeared in my September newsletter.
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Progress is rarely linear
August 29, 2022 § Leave a comment
I’ll be honest, I’ve had a difficult time deciding what to write in this post.
At the beginning of August, I began my second Lyme treatment, and I’ve spent most of this month in a drowsy haze.
I sleep. A lot.
I watch reality TV (Love Is Blind, anyone?).
I pet the kitten.
I think about bears in hibernation as I snuggle deeper into a plush blue blanket and reread a paragraph in my novel, trying to make sense of the words.
My doctor calls this “brain fog.” An inability to focus, to keep my eyes open, to feel refreshed even after ten hours of sleep and a nap. Brain fog is a common symptom among Lyme patients, though (thankfully!) I’ve rarely struggled with it until now.
She says it’s a sign of the treatment working.
She promises me it won’t last forever.
Still, after the joy of a relatively healthy June and July, this fog plugging my head can feel like a step in the wrong direction. Of course, I wanted my journey back to health to be a straight line upwards and to the right.
But the truth is: progress is rarely linear. Improvement is nearly always more like a jagged line.
And what might look like failure on the outside could be, in truth, the most profound achievement. Success is circumstantial.
These thoughts flutter through the fog in my head, small, bright birds singing hopefully. They offer me encouragement. I hope they do the same for you.
This post originally appeared in my August newsletter.
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A kitten takes a bath
August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment
Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”
I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.
Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.
But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.
“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”
Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.
But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.
But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.
I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.
The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?
An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.
It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.
It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.
More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.
This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.
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May 31, 2022 § Leave a comment
Friends, it’s been a little while since I last posted on here, and a lot has happened since then! Last year I took a sabbatical from professional writing for my health, and while that sabbatical continues, I have slowly, tentatively begun to follow my urge back into writing. To that end, I’d love to invite you to join me in my latest writing endeavor!
|I suppose a better title for this newsletter might be something along the lines of, “a note from the candle-lined, Epsom salt-filled bathtub” or, “a note from the mint green couch under the third story apartment window.” Or even, “a note from the bed, where I sit propped up by a handful of linen throw pillows.” Because in truth, it’s been nearly a year since I last sat at a desk.|
I can’t sit at a desk, not really, at least not for now. I have yet to find the right chair to correctly support my back, the right way to position my hands at the keyboard, the best spot to place the screen that will allow me to sit long enough at any desk to write without my nerves flailing out of control.
I don’t share this to illicit pity. I share this simply to be honest, and because I have a great deal of hope that one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—this note can rightfully be called “a note from the desk” because I will be well enough to sit at one. Preferably the handsome wooden corner desk my husband bought for me when we were dating—the one that’s a bit scratched and scuffed, the one with the coffee mug ring in the corner. I love that desk. And I have every intention of using it in the future.
And that is why I’ve titled this newsletter “a note from the desk.” Because even though I come to you from the tub, the couch, the bed—nearly every spot in my apartment but the desk—I have hope that one day I will pen this note to you from a desk where I sit without any pain (or, really, less pain—I’m not asking for perfection).
Something I’ve learned during these years with Lyme disease: some kinds of hope are easier to have than others.
And having chronic illness, and remaining hopeful, perhaps not for the correct treatment, but at least for a life that does not circle entirely around the sad and tough components of illness—that is a very hard hope to have. That is hope that takes some real muscle. Some courage. Some inner strength. And frankly, it’s a hope that’s a whole heck of a lot easier when you don’t have to do it alone. I have found it a lot easier to hope when I’ve acknowledged just how hard it is to hope when you are sick and have been sick for a very long time.
Perhaps this is you? And maybe it’s not illness, but something else. And I won’t pretend to have the answers for how to keep going, though somehow I have kept going, and if I can do it, I think you can, too.
This newsletter is an experiment in hope. I don’t know what the next months will bring—greater health or another flare up. I have come to expect surprise rather than certainty. But I’m stepping out, nonetheless.
It probably won’t be easy. And I don’t care what they say. I would very, very much prefer easy. But that’s not the road I’m on. And God promises that even on the narrow path—the difficult one, if you will—there are still opportunities for lightness, for ease, for joy. If I’m anything, I am determined to find that light yolk Jesus speaks of. I’ll be like Jacob; I’ll wrestle it from his grasp.
One thing’s for certain: I do hope you’ll decided to join me (see above about how it’s so much better not to go it alone).
ICYMI: A story and more
January 27, 2020 § Leave a comment
I’m a bit behind on sharing this story — it came out at the beginning of the year, and here we are almost at the end of January! But isn’t this how Januaries typically go? We resolve, plan, push, and by the end of the month ask ourselves, what did we really do, where did all our hopes and goals and resolutions vanish? I, for one, spent a good deal of the month working on stories that I’m afraid ultimately look a bit too forced, a bit flat on the page. Though, perhaps not; perhaps they only look that way in the dim light of wintry January.
Here is what I want to share: An SMU Poet Brings a New Form of Storytelling to Your Phone. This story felt especially triumphant to me because it was one of the first journalism pieces I worked on since recovering from that pesky Lyme Disease, which still causes some nerve pain in my poor ol’ hands. Baby steps. One by one. Making it through this cold beginning month of the year.
I’ve noticed other bloggers will often share things they love on their newsletters and such, and while I can’t promise any form of consistency here with that sort of thing, I will share these two delightful bits I’m enjoying right now just for the fun of it:
A Sunday Note by Aningri. I look forward to this every week, and have to say Anna’s words almost always hit me right where they’re most needed.
And, Out of the Ordinary Podcast. I listen to this every Wednesday as soon as it comes out. I am younger than these women, and my life looks quite a bit different than theirs, but the universality of their friendship and the stories they tell always offer me just the right shot of encouragement and tenderness I need at midweek.
Here’s to a fabulous new year!
The Woven Tale Press
May 4, 2019 § Leave a comment
Just popping onto this small corner of the Internet to post a quick update from this sunny Saturday morning in Dallas!
I’m thrilled to share this short story I wrote a while back, published in the May issue of The Woven Tale Press, a lovely international literary journal that features literature and fine art. The story, “Go Boom”, also happens to be the piece that was performed last month at Texas Bound, the Dallas Museum of Art’s version of Selected Shorts. The talented Rosaura Cruz, a local Dallas actress, read the story; here’s a photo from that night!
ICYMI: Anne Lamott and more
May 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
As some of you know, I’ve taken a hiatus from the world of writing since the beginning of the year. This wasn’t planned. If ever you think you know the trajectory of your life, think again. Someone once told me: Life usually turns out far better and far worse than you imagined it would. Since last October, when I first felt the dull edge of pain that would blossom into what I now call my “weird” illness, I’ve found this to be true.
My life took a turn: pain in my neck, my back, and my hands so excruciating I couldn’t use the mouse for my computer, sometimes couldn’t turn my head, most of the time wore heating pads stuck to my spine. Fatigue so extreme, I would go out to dinner with friends only to leave early because I feared I would be too weak to drive myself home. Strange muscle pain I described to my many doctors as, “burning in my arms and legs.” Aching in my knees and elbows. An inability to get enough air into my lungs. There is much more I could write about what’s happened; maybe sometime I will.
For now there is this: hope. Hope in the fact that today I can sit at my computer and type this blog post. Hope in the form of doctors who think they’ve landed on a diagnosis at last (could it be Lyme Disease? it seems likely). Hope in the fact that my energy ever so slowly has returned, the pain ever so slowly abated, that though my recovery may be long, there can be full recovery.
Also: in the midst of this, physical manifestations of God’s mercy. Maybe some day I will write about that, too. Suffice it to say, the far better part has been true also.
In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to share on this blog some of the stories I wrote before taking my hiatus.
First, an interview with the lovely, quirky Anne Lamott. Like so many, I’m a fan of Bird by Bird, so you can imagine my excitement upon interviewing her!
And second, I wrote a few stories about classical music in the Dallas area. The Dallas Symphony Chorus celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and a new choral ensemble, Verdigris, appeared on the music scene. If you’re a Dallasite, I recommend them both to you! And even if you’re not, the stories of their successes and differing approaches to art inspired and intrigued me quite a bit…maybe they will you as well.
A prayer for artists
September 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lord, have mercy on the artists.
Have mercy on the ballet dancer who’s memorized the steps for her upcoming audition so perfectly she dreams the movements in her sleep, her toes pointing and flexing beneath the sheets. She arrives early to the audition, her tired pink leg warmers drooping along her calves, her worn point shoes tied at the ribbons and slung over one arm, her eyes shining with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time she will get a part in the dance.
Have mercy on the painter who wakes early every Saturday morning to catch the golden light at the dawn of day. She arranges her paint brushes, canvas, and easel at the edge of the water, listens as the birds begin to chatter, watches as the sunlight first touches the lake. During the week, she works as a waitress, balancing trays of ice water and fried fish with a strong arm that now holds her palette, but when people ask her what she does she lays claim to her true nature and in the face of their skepticism (How do you make a living painting landscapes?), she answers boldly, I am an artist. It is a labor of love.
Have mercy on the pianist who’s taken private lessons in the living room of an elderly lady with shock white hair since she was three years old. She volunteers at her church now, playing old hymns that still tingle her nerves, her fingers flying across the chipped black and white keys. She dreams of one day playing on a Steinway at Carnegie Hall. And why not? Her parents always told her she could do anything. And it isn’t out of vanity or ambition that she practices arpeggios and scales day after day, but because she loves the clear and complex sound of the chords as they progress gracefully. She only wants an audience for her music, an audience who appreciates the great composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. She wants to perform well, for the music to transport those who listen.
Have mercy on the actress who cannot decide whether she should stay in her small hometown where she teaches acting at the local high school and performs starring roles in the community theater or move to Los Angeles where she might attend audition after audition and never receive a single callback in ten years. She fell in love with theater when she was thirteen years old because the theater kids were weirdos too, and she thinks she has real talent, thinks she might actually be somebody someday. Her motivations are mixed: she loves theater, enjoys it for what it is, but she also wants to be rich and famous, a true Hollywood star. She doesn’t move because she’s afraid of this monstrous ambition hidden deep within her, and yet, she probably is talented and hard working enough to catch the eye of any producer.
Have mercy on the writer who wakes every day before the sun, brews strong black coffee, lights several candles and a stick of sweet incense before sitting hunched at her laptop, stringing word after word, spinning stories out of smoky air. On her good days, her imagination carts her off to magical lands where she meets strange and interesting characters who come to life on her computer screen. But on her bad days, she is full of fear, a fear that keeps her from that other land, a fear that says, Nothing you create is worth anything. It is all the vanity in Ecclesiastes, words dispersing like fine blown dust.
Lord, send your grace upon these your people. In their failures, in their ambitions, in their needs, remind them that You love them. Remind them that You are pleased whether they do anything or not. Remind them that the tasks set before them are worthy. Remind them that You bear their disappointments with them, that they are not alone. Remind them that they have something to offer. Remind them that they are, simply, children of God.
April 27, 2017 § 4 Comments
I go to sleep in India, and in the morning I wake with my stomach roiling, the pain in my belly sharp and hot. I curl on my side, and sleep and sleep and sleep, the voices of my foreign roommates at the hostel in Varanasi close to my ear but far from my conscious. I sit up, nauseous, and curse the hostel for building its toilets three floors above on the hot roof beneath the relentless sun. I think, I’ve never been so violently ill in my entire life, and I wonder if I’ll be well enough to catch my overnight train that leaves in a few hours.
One bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, my scarf whapping wildly against the metal roof, my backpack balanced on one knee, we are at the train station. We are late, with five minutes until our train departs, and I run after Emma, my legs weak and my chest heaving and my belly tight. In that moment, I’ll admit it: I hate India.
But then we are on the train, and I am lying down with my cheek against the hard leather bed and a crisp off-white sheet laid upon me. Eighteen hours passes fast when you’re exhausted, and the next thing I know, I awake in a pool of sun to the low call of “Chai! Chai!” from an Indian man carrying a metal thermos up and down the aisle. I order two fried potato somosas wrapped in newspaper and manage to keep one down. Then, we pull into Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Suddenly, in the glow of my restored health, India blooms.
In the cool of an early morning, Emma and I catch a Tuk Tuk to a coffee shop in old Jaipur, where a waiter in a fabulous white and green turban with a stiff fabric plume serves us black coffee and French toast and eggs. Full at last and content, we walk at will through the bazaar, and the smells are so good: incense and sweet curd and hot red curry and so so so many flowers, soft red petals stacked in thick layers and strings of yellow marigolds and bunches of purple and orange and pink blooms. Women crowd stalls filled with sparkly bangles, trying them on in layers of six and seven colorful plastic rings jangling up their arms. They ooo and ah and tell me, “look at these, they’d look good on you,” and so I give myself over to the colors of India.
I buy cheap bangles with purple and green and gold rhinestones and peacocks painted on the sides. I buy a long pink and green and silver sequined skirt. I try on a white sari that shimmers like real marble. Emma and I drink Coca Cola in cold glass bottles with an Indian vendor in the shade of his quiet rooftop shop, where we sort through painted carved elephants and bright chunky turbans and slippery silk blouses. The city is painted pink, and I’m falling in love.
On the Tuk Tuk drive back to our hostel, we stop at a red light and a boy, maybe seven or eight, wraps his arms around the metal frame, holding out one open palm and miming the taking and eating of food. His hair is sandy from white dust and his eyes are dark brown. Our Tuk Tuk driver shoos him away and the light turns green.
India is enormous, and another twelve hour overnight train ride west takes us deep into the Rajasthani desert town of Jaisalmer. We arrive at 5 in the morning, when the desert is still dark and quiet and breezy. Manu, the young man who runs the hostel, greets us at the front door and whisks us up three floors to the open air rooftop, where we watch the orange sun rise over the 12th century brown stone fort on the hill. We eat buttered toast and omelettes and drink milky brown chai.
Below us, men and women sleep on flat roofs. They are cocooned lumps in thick mattresses and ratty blankets. Manu sees me staring at them and says, “India is incredible. You can see anything in India.” We stay up there until it gets too hot — which isn’t long once the sun is up — and then we fall into our air conditioned room and sleep off the sleepless night.
We’ve come to Jaisalmer for a camel safari. Emma and I first heard about these safaris when we were in Nepal, and immediately knew we had to go on one.
In the late afternoon, we climb into the back of Manu’s rusty jeep and head further west, into the desert. The sun is a hazy circle of fire in the sky, the air hot and dry, the gravel road bumpy. Manu gives us both cold water bottles, and I press mine against my bare belly, the side of my neck, roll it between my hands. We zip past cacti the size of trees and start seeing the camels, standing about listlessly in the sun, staring at us smugly from the side of the road, plucking the leaves from desert oaks, sleeping with their long necks folded into the sand. I get a quick thrill when Manu tells us we are an hour’s drive from Pakistan. Once again, we are far from home.
Raju and Doola, our camels, are waiting for us at the camel point, a small sandstone village where camels with ropes around their front feet drink muddy water from a stone tank and chew cud with the mangy dogs running circles around their long legs. They are gangly, all knobby knees and fuzzy humps and skinny necks and floppy lips. When I climb onto Raju’s back, he lets out a primordial growl that reminds me of a dinosaur. These creatures are ugly and temperamental; they are also resilient and strong. They carry us in the triple digit heat out onto the sand dunes. The eight-year-old me who always thought camels were cute squeals with joy on the inside even though the ride is hot and uncomfortable, and soon my legs are sore.
The desert is pleasant once the sun sets. We drink chai from tin mugs off a platter on the dunes, watching the sun fall. In the distance, I hear the sound of Doola’s bell clanging as she chews her cud. Below us, a camel man and a camel boy cook curry and rice over a fire. Stray dogs lie on the sand, watching and waiting for a chance to steal our dinner.
Manu sits with Emma and me in silence as the desert grows dark and the first stars appear. There, shining bright is Jupiter. And there, so comforting because I can always see it at home, is Orion’s Belt. We sit on a coarse blanket by the fire in the dark and eat our meal as the fat black beetles scramble across the sand.
Manu and the camel man set up cots padded with thick mattresses up high on the dunes. We drink ice cold Kingfisher beers as he and the camel man serenade us with Rajasthani renditions of “Barbie Girl” and “Buffalo Soldier” and a sad song about an Indian woman who is getting married and must leave her family for good. We ask Manu questions about life in India, and he tells us there is no dating here, which is very hard. “When women don’t have power, men don’t have power,” he says. He tells us he will marry a foreign girl. He tells us he wants to travel, but Jaisalmer is as far as he’s ever been from his village of three hundred people near the Pakistani border. He wants to see the beaches of Goa, maybe, or the mountains of Nepal. Now that he’s no longer a camel man, but works for the hostel, he can save up money. He tells us all this in perfect English, which he began learning only two years ago.
That night, I count six shooting stars and send my wishes up to God. I see lightning flash along the horizon. I feel the cool breeze off the dunes and bury myself in my blanket. I fall asleep, and when I wake a few hours later, the Milky Way is a white river flowing above me. I feel so close to the sky, the dome above, it doesn’t seem real. When the sun rises, the birds chirp and an eagle soars right above us. Far out in the flat desert below the dunes, I see Raju and Doola sleeping with their heads up to the sky.
As seen in India
April 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
India: I see, but I don’t always understand. And I see so much.
We walk the back alleys of the bazaars in Old Delhi, and it is stepping around doves and pigeons crammed in flat metal cages, children pumping brown water into a bucket from a rusted pump, women in bright patterned saris with gold rings in their noses who stare at our pale skin, men driving green and yellow Tuk Tuks pulling up and calling out, “Spice market? Red fort? Very cheap!” It is tattered colorful tarps strung over piles of trousers, T-shirts, and flip flops. It is heaps of corroded electrical parts and trash strewn about the ground. It is vendors selling sharp smelling oranges and cold fresh-squeezed lime juice and bunches of bananas on a wooden plank. It is the heat, relentless and full, and the sun ever shining. It is cows lumbering idly, eating scraps from metal bins. It is the smell of sweat and urine and exhaust, and then, suddenly, spicy curry.
A man dressed all in white beckons us into his crowded restaurant, and in a steamy booth crammed upstairs beneath a rickety fan, we tear apart chunks of freshly baked roti and dip it in hot curried vegetables. We lavish praises over this fabulous meal, which will cost us each less than fifty cents.
Loudspeakers on the minarets of the Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India, echo forth the call to prayer. I wrap my floral scarf around my head and follow the mass of people up the stone steps. Below me, Old Delhi is tin roofs glinting in the sun and dust and smog billowing upwards, horns honking and thousands of people clambering over each other in a mad rush to get where they have to go. We sit in the shade of the mosque and Indians approach us, asking, “Photo?” Or they don’t ask at all, and sidle up for a selfie. A little girl in a white and purple chiffon dress prances back and forth in front of us, smiling and laughing. In all my traveling, this time and the times before, I have never felt farther away from home.
We would be lost without Shabhu. Or at least, navigating Agra would be much more difficult.
When the train from Delhi pulls into Agra, we look for a Tuk Tuk to drive us to the Taj, and Shabhu, mustached and skinny, in a pressed yellow shirt and clean white pants, steps out of the crowd, beckoning for us to follow. “Welcome to my Indian helicopter,” he says, helping us into his green and yellow Tuk Tuk. It is spotless, inside and out. For 500 rupees each, Shabhu will take us around Agra for the day: the Taj Mahal, the Black Taj, the Agra Fort, a traditional Indian lunch. He shows us his guest book, where tourists from around the world have written recommendations. We look at each other, tired and hot, and put our trust in Shabhu.
He does not fail, and within half an hour, we are walking through the main gate of the Taj. We can see her marble base through the dark entry. She is more beautiful than I ever imagined she would be. All the hype: it’s true. She stands tall and magnificent in the sun, a marble testament to love. We walk around her, touch her cool side, look in wonder at the inlays, florid curls and wisps of vines and words carved in a language secret to us.
Next up, says Shabhu, the Black Taj. He explains meticulously what this Black Taj is, with one arm draped over the back of his Tuk Tuk, the other shooing away a child who comes up to ask, “Chocolate?” But in his thick Indian accent, we don’t understand what he says. We catch words here and there, phrases occasionally: “black marble shipped by boat from Italy”, “too expensive”, “money given to the poor.” We ask questions for clarification, but still don’t understand, and in the end, let him lead us down a quiet, dusty road toward a booth, where we shell out 200 rupees and enter a hot garden where orange blossoms drip from shimmering green trees and the sun bakes our skin.
We see the Taj Mahal again, this time from across the river and without the throngs of tourists and whistling guards. We see a pile of old red brick ruins. We see a cow with a large metal bell clanking around its neck gallop along the shore. We whisper earnestly to each other, “Where is the Black Taj?” We want to see it, this dark mirror of the mausoleum across the way.
As it turns out, the Black Taj does not exist. We look it up on our iPhones and find it is a legend made popular by the “fanciful writings”, according to Wikipedia, of an obscure British writer. In other words, we paid to see the supposed location of a mausoleum that was never built and may never have been planned.
We sit on a crumbling wall in the shade of the trees, and with the real Taj across the river, we laugh. For the rest of the trip we will be looking at each other and asking, “Remember when we saw the Black Taj?”
We return to Shabhu and he takes us to a lunch of mushroom masala and fried rice and lassis. Once again I think, I’d come to India over and over again just for the food.
I find a book on Hinduism in our hostel in Varanasi, and flip through the pages on the rooftop terrace, lounging on colorful cushions and plush pillows beneath a fan that stirs the hot air. It is 106 degrees, and I fall asleep reading, the heat filling me until I am a heavy weight that could lie there forever.
India is 80 percent Hindu, and Varanasi is the holy city on the banks of the holy river, the Ganges. Later, we wind our way through the narrow, bustling streets until we see the ghats, the steps leading down to the river, and the green water of the Ganges herself. We walk along the concrete embankments, and see the smoke from the cremation fires and the holy men in their matted dreads and saffron-colored sashes and the wooden boats with their orange and pink and yellow flags flapping gently in the wind.
Young children splash about in the water. Old men lather themselves with soap. Young men come alongside us asking, “Boat?” Women selling bright yellow marigold flowers and candles in silver trays to float in the river hold up their baskets for us to see. Water buffalo, huge and slick, lumber out of the river and barrel past. Looking absently this way and that, we see a dead body wrapped in cloth and swarming with flies in the trunk of a truck.
“Varanasi is life and death together,” an Indian man tells me as we look out over the river, and I feel like I’m witnessing something important, something vital that I don’t understand, that I am separate from, that is closed off to me.
Holy men with ash smeared on their bodies smiling and waving, a child with a lame foot leaning on a wooden staff disappearing down a narrow alleyway, an Indian man telling me, “Go to the burning ghats now to see the bodies. It is very lucky.” Crumbling red and mute brown stone temples, metal vats of square white paneer, the sweet smell of yogurt and so many flies I cannot breathe for fear of inhaling them. The surprising flick of a cow’s tail on my hand. A little boy diving gracefully into the water, splashing me as I leap back.
In the late morning, we walk along the ghats until we find a spot beside a few bobbing boats where a boy is swimming and washing his clothes. I take off my shoes and step ankle-deep into the cool water. The concrete is slick with moss, and I don’t think about what else. Upstream, another boy rides a water buffalo while men who’ve just taken a dip squat in the shade playing cards. As the water laps gently at my feet, I try not to think about the bodies dropped ceremoniously in the center of the river and the 80 bodies a day cremated on its shores. I don’t think about the ashes. I don’t think about how the Ganges is the second most polluted river in the world. I don’t think about my sins being washed away or good luck or pleasing Shiva.
I stare out at several new friends from my hostel who have gone in all the way, and I feel confused. At peace, yes, but aware that I’ve stumbled upon a place that is so different from me, a beautiful place that ignites my imagination and jolts me out of myself, but a place that feels far away even as I sit with my feet in the middle of it.
In the evening, we wind our way down the streets from our quiet, air-conditioned hostel to the ghats. The river is a hazy blue, and a soft breeze blows across the water. Every evening at 7, there is a ceremony called arati on the ghats, a ritual of worship to the river and the god Shiva, and a prayer for mankind as a whole. We reach one of the main ghats and find the water just off the shore crowded with wooden boats full of Hindu worshippers come to see the ritual. Some light candles and send them floating off into the dark. Many more crowd the steps leading up to a platform, where bells clang and men in brilliant orange sing, burn sticks of incense, wave huge gold cups shaped like serpents filled with fire, and toss petals of marigolds into the air.
One of the men in orange speaks in Hindi into the microphone at the dense crowd, and I ask an Indian fellow who accompanied us from the hostel what is being said. I expect something profound, something highly holy, but instead, it turns out the man is simply instructing the crowd to watch their belongings and to speak with the administration if they would like a ritual performed in honor of themselves or a family member or a loved one.
And suddenly, on the banks of the Ganges, seated beside an Indian man with the mark of Shiva on his forehead and several old women wearing saris and a gazillion sparkly bangles on their wrists, I break through a barrier to familiarity. This enchanting, colorful ritual may be unusual to me, but the aim is the same as any ritual I’d see at home: prosperity, health, and happiness for us all. As a man walks around jotting down requests for the ritual on a pad of paper, I’m reminded of prayer request cards at the backs of the pews in my church at home and the prayer teams available during communion. So much of the form of this religion is different than my own, but the desires in the hearts of these people are the same. For a moment, as clouds of sweet incense billow over my head and the bells clang and the music arches into the night sky over the water, I am moved on the inside, and my heart gives a little flutter.
On the way back, the river is quiet again, and we pass the fires on the burning ghat near our hostel. I hear children laughing and playing cricket in an alleyway. I see a mother and father and baby step out of a pharmacy and climb onto a motorcycle. I see a body wrapped in saffron cloth and a man in a matching tunic waving incense over it. I see two mad dogs going at it in the street. And I think, this religious city is a living metaphor for all of humanity, for the mystery of birth and growth and death, and everything therein.