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Monday, January 12, 2015

A Ride to Rajupalem

It's the day before New Year's Eve when we drive out for a visit to the PUSHPA center in Rajupalem. Morning rush hour has passed, but it is still busy making our way through town and nearby suburbs...that were separate towns when I first came here.  There are small shops and homes of every description, and as urban areas give way to rural, we periodically pass several multi-story cold storage buildings and graduate schools set back from the road. Perhaps they shelter produce from this area, the chilly capital of the world, or the next Nobel prize winner in pharmacy or engineering. 
Bordering the road between the towns through which we pass, are disshevelled borders of large thorn bushes punctuated by trees, among which old "Flame of the Forest" trees are the most graceful, flinging branches out on either side to form an umbrella of leaves from field to road.  (This is a file photo of a younger tree in, in winter, there is only a thick green canopy of leaves:)DSCF2942.jpg - Flamboyan Tree 
(AKA:Fire Tree, Flame of the Forest, Fountain Tree, African Tulip Tree)Raghava tells us that little boys use the tree's showy flowers for pretend cock fights, a popular (males') spectator and betting sport of this, the harvest season.  Although its practice has been banned, we saw pictures and articles of cock fights, even some with knives attached to the birds' legs, in the newspaper.

Here and there we slow for 'brake inspectors' (small groups of water buffalo) or for larger groups of slender, dark brown sheep and goats, tassels of fur bouncing  under their chins in counter-rhythm  to their bouncing gait. Their shepherd succeeds somewhat in keeping them moving in a forward direction.  But now and then their numbers flow across the road and we slow in amiable counterpoint to their bobbly rhythm.

The ragpickers' tiny roadside community in Porrapadu shows progress:  The makeshift huts of  discarded plastic sheeting are neater, stitched together more securely, and arranged in a semblance of rows.  One of the last huts we pass has a shaded "porch," where two woman feed a treadle
sewing machine a diet of the huge blue sheets with a purposefulness worthy of a LWR ladies' quilting group.. A few women sit right on the roadside, sorting what one of them has brought home for consideration. The little community shows a unity of purpose.

Impatient cars and even trucks ("lorries")  weave in and out of the traffic, often driving with impunity into the face of oncoming traffic, with nary a doubt that each bus, car, or auto-rickshaw will return to its own lane in good time. They usually do, although later today we will find a broken down truck leaking its bounty of overstuffed gunny bags of freshly picked cotton, goods for one of the area's huge cotton ginning mills.  Cotton is the second big agro-product of this area.

After an hour and a half, and past our former, rented quarters with another ngo in Rajupalem, we turn off on a tiny dirt road, little more than a path, into the neighborhood of PUSHPA's 'own' rented quarters, housing our Rajupalem office and sewing center.  A staff member living in the house and the sewing teacher hurry, smiling, down the narrow stairway nestled against the compound wall.  We
greet and grasp hands helping us over uneven ground and up the steps to a welcoming committee of sewing students about to graduate from their three month course. They are bashful until tea and pre-requisite matter-of-course questions and a look at their sample work, when one of the group initiates a banter that goes on among them and broadens to include me (husband and a few men set to work with a discussion group on the front patio) until, one-by-one, they slip away to lunch.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Moving Forward

Guntur is definitely a city on the move.  Everywhere, everywhere, construction, remodeling, and road widening are going on......Nnrrow lanes are narrowed further by tiny patches of broken earth between compound (courtyward) walls and, in some lanes, archaic open drainage ditches awaiting street widening. Indeed, streets are paved or concretized in most of the town, and the drainage ditches are being replaced by underground pipes, as in our neighborhood..  A plethora of tiny shops old and new are interspersed with large, shiny new shops, some of whose names you would recognize (United Colors of Benetton, Kentucky Fried Chicken), others of local and regional Telugu and English creation.. A multistoried multi-specialty hospital is rising above the sleepy compound where Drs. Patricia and Samson are painstakingly growing a simple grass roots inner city hospital.
Our street resounds with the sound of pounding on concrete, iron, stone and wood.  Buildings are of concrete, stone, and tile in a country where trees are few and precious.  Despite advanced techniques and materials, much of the local work is painstakingly done by hand with rudimentary tools..  Rods are pounded into shape with simple hammers.. Nearby, concrete finishers sit and walk along bamboo scaffolding of a four story building project, somewhat shaded from the noonday sun by huge, tattered plastic bags that puff and blow about in the wind. Here and there a team of men and women relay open pan headloads of cement, sand, or stones from curbside piles into building sites. Small cement mixers turn out the stuff in small doses.  The sounds of trucks and the unloading of materials might be heard until midnight or later.  Then it's usually quiet until the usual daily sounds announce the early morning.
Miniature (Piaggio) to medium sized trucks ply the roads, delivering everything from take-out food to onions, from paper products to boxes of a variety of world class and/or made in China goods. Once in awhile a larger truck rumbles a large container along.
Our apartment building's generator has been commandeered for post-storm-damage recovery at Vishakhapatnam, an important university, port and ship/submarine building center several hours away, on the Bay of Bengal. So, when we lose city power (mercifully, only twice this month, for short periods), my husband braves the stairs. but I stay put, in our fourth floor apartment, musing and hoping for a return of computer access to record my observations here.
In the relative quiet of a holiday morning (even the door-to-door vendors are silent) when, like people everywhere, those who can are sleeping in, I take my camera to the laundry verandah...a common feature in Indian apartments, new and capture how the neighborhood looks from four floors up.  In this part of our block, only three single family homes , now surrounded by four and five floor apartments, remain.  Once charming middle class homes, freshly whitewashed every year, and surrounded by palm and fruit trees, they languish dingily until their owners decide how and when to modernize, demolish, and/or build.  The trees are the few that remain to freshen the dwindling air supply.  But building goes on all around, all around, and construction goes on all around.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Quiet Christmas

Our first week at home in our brand new apartment passes in a blur. New beds and sounds, on top of long travel and stopover hours, an inverted sleep schedule (Indian time is 11 and 1/2 hours ahead of Minnesota's) mean unanticipated.moments of sudden sleeping or disorientation during the week.  Still, we manage to get a lot done, tuning in again with the the household staff in the process of last minute details to the apartment and the assembling of Christmas treat bags for neighbors and those who help us regularly.

We had a relatively quiet Christmas. I use the word 'relatively' advisedly (is that acceptable grammar?) . Friends had brought family and staff a few days earlier to rejoice in the progress of their tiny inner city hospital , as well as to welcome us with Christmas hymns and prayers of blessing. Other friends sent fruit and sweet treats.  Our families with whom we might have spent the holidays were in Chennai or Bangalore with relatives, had gone on a tour of Kerala, or stayed home in Hyderabad this year.  One brother and his wife who live in the first floor of the same building went to church, and only one group of carollers came around our street Christmas eve, so it was  quiet in the neighborhood.

 But on Christmas eve we drove with Raghava's (driver) and Pushpa's (household helper) children town to look at Christmas lighting around town, and sit a few minutes in meditation at each of several churches :  St. Matthew's West and North parishes, St. Joseph's Catholic, and Trinity Congregation in the old Kugler Hospital Campus.  Darkness fell soon after we set out.

You would think that, after fifty years I'd worked things through, but as we passed through thronging shopping areas, and over a bridge spanning a number of railway tracks, I had to admit to what could only be called culture shock. ( Second time in fifty years isn't too bad a record, but I wasn't thinking of that at the time.)  There was more than just amazement at the unforgiving sea of auto rickshaws, motor cycles and cars, all of them with bright lights and none of them particularly observing the lane system, the closeness of the exhaust-polluted air, the scene stitched together with people intent on their various ways, determined, really, to move among the traffic, ignoring signals and danger, clambering over medians and between cars.  By now, you as well as I realize that this is India.  To put it tritely, up close and personal.

In one dark lane, an lone older woman with a cane waited and watched for her chance to cross an unbroken stream of cars.  None slowed or stopped. Neither did we. And for a moment the intellectual knowledge of class and cultural disparity became irrelevant.  I was one with the stream of people, I was that woman waiting for a chance to cross. What did a passport in my purse and the relative spaciousness of our vehicle matter?  I was in a car contributing to both the mass and the mess. I became the old woman unsure of crossing a busy street. I was both problem and solidarity.  The mind could not encompass what it wanted, or needed, to think, except to admit that, in that moment, I could not process the thought, and I felt myself shrinking, wordless, into my comfortable seat.

The next day after church, (again, short visits to four churches, stopping to worship at St. Matthew's West, under tinsel and styrofoam decorations hung from high rafters, and saints keeping their watch from stained glass windows --brought here by German missionaries a hundred years ago, damaged panes here and there patched with faded imitations of original images-- where we observe the scene and remember Christmases past at each of them, awed at the thousands of chairs and vast shamianas shielding them and their temporary outdoor stagea from the sun. People attending the neighborhood Lutheran church's outdoor service walk past beggars at the gate, or are driven in to be dropped off, each in their own due time, arriving anywhere from an hour early to very late during the three hour worship service.

Back at home, I break open a bag of candy kisses to share with the helpers who'll care of us and our household this season.   Raghava is nonplussed, and starts to unwrap his.  Pushpa takes her cue from the the rest of us, but pauses at the sight of what (here, she turns toward Raghava and lowers her voice) "looks like a turd," and the three of us eye each other tentatively. Raghava-- wondering whether and what to explain about this observation, either to me or to her, Pushpa-- seeking a social clue, and myself-- hesitating to say more lest I appear to belittle small cowpies topped with fresh flowers which actually do figure in a local celebration every January.

A beat.

Pushpa looks surprised as Raghava pops a candy into his mouth, and she hesitates before slowly following suit.  Raghava and I wag our heads to indicate that it does indeed look like what she thinks, but I go on to explain that it's a popular American chocolate treat, called a candy kiss. This is too much for Pushpa, whose eyes bulge with an attempt at restraint, before the three of us burst into laughter at the multicultural incongruities of this conversation.

The rest of the day is quiet, as families throughout the neighborhood and town get together with their own, and we are thankful.  The hours-long worship broadcast on loudspeakers from our nearby St. Matthew's North Parish is heard in the background My husband and I take part in preparing a holiday lunch to share with Raghava and Pushpa and their families--we are six adults and four children, and pass the time together amiably at noon, when the spirit of Christ, our Savior, is born once more.

Here We Go Again

It's been fifty years since I first arrived in India, fresh from college,eager to begin a three year assignment teaching English as a foreign language at Lutheran mission schools in Guntur. Since then my husband and I have tried unsuccessfully to establish a work relationship that would allow us to live here (bureaucracy, lack of needed/promised infrastructure), gotten too entrenched in jobs (good ones) and with family (precious children, growing up as children do) to leave America, been derailed by personal medical contingencies (if you know us, you know what), watched our children launch their own families (grandchildren--yay!), and finally, after retirement, started an all-volunteer non-profit organization to accompany people in several rural Guntur District neighborhoods on their journey to community and sustainable lifestyles (widespread needs).

Fast forward:  This is at least my twentieth trip.  I was not at all looking forward to it. I need more time to rest, heal, strengthen after a particularly difficult year..But after a ten day adjustment period, I think I am getting my 'sea' legs  And, Lordwilling, 2015 WILL BE a better year.

SO, starting on December 15, we flew from Minneapolis to Mumbai via Amsterdam, with wonderful seats and service on Minneapolis based DELTA Airlines.. Long stopovers in AMS and MUM give us time to enjoy brand new international terminals, including immigration, and lunch at a transit lounge in Mumbai. A fellow passenger strikes up a conversation (a throwback to days when doing so was de rigeur on any long Indian trip, by bus, train, or plane);  it turns out that not only is he a pharmaceutical salesman like my husband was, years ago, but he also has contact information for a government approved airport renta- car-cum-driver,  which my husband promptly calls and arranges to meet us upon arrival at the Hyderabad airport. While cooling our heels in the spacious and modern Mumbai airport my husband and a familiar porter book an ongoing flight to Hyderabad on IndiGo, perhaps the youngest of India's domestic airlines. Indeed, few people in the whole busy airport appear to be older than in their thirties.  The Indigo flight crew look like children to us, and appear to be very new at the usual initial flight routine aboard their tiny and tidy white and blue planes.

Eager to be home, we've shelved our plan to stay and rest in Hyderabad for a couple days in favor of driving on through, arriving home at nightfall.  Husband and I are beyond tired, and the driver and I have never set eyes on the building before.  Not until an unfamiliar watchman's wife stares us down in consternation do we realize we have driven into the parking level of a similar building, two doors down the street. Backing out with apologies and just a wee bit of embarrassment, we finally drive in at the right gate,' laughing all the way,' where our watchman's young daughters dash to open our car doors with shouts of  'Uncle, Uncle!!' for my husband, and curious gazes for this 'new' person who is his wife.

Their mother Pushpa (same name as our ngo), who will be our household helper, helps Raghava (our local driver and husband's man-Friday for you-name-it regular and odd jobs around home and the town as well as driving) set to work downloading our baggage and sending it upstairs. Before the elevator gates clank, a voice inside repeatedly insists 'Please close the door!' before we ascend to our fourth floor quarters,where more clanks and the message are repeated again.  The elevator voice seems older and more subdued than one in a Hyderabad apartment where we dwelt briefly four or five years ago.  Our doorbell proves a different matter...a shriek, by anybody's definition.  But, never mind, finally, we are home.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

How About That?!

Already I know that a new year's resolution will be to submit, submit, submit; that is, to submit samples of my writing to magazines and other publishing sites.  Ever wary of sharing my 'gems' for scrutiny, I finally learned to use the electronic process aptly named 'Submittable', to channel my submissions directly to their intended destinations.  Whether an editor finds them worthy is out of my hands.

So this week I am pleased to say that my essay "Writing Poems at Sixty Nine", which I'd sent out via 'Submittable' and with my blessing,  appeared online today.  I had submitted it to the's website, under the category "Writer's Block," which, I assume, means place for thought, not obstruction.  My writing has been found worthy.

So how do I feel about that?  Filled with glee, fingers flying over the keyboard to tell all my friends and writing team (fellow writers and encouragers) (current parlance calls for a feminine counterpart to 'fellow,' but 'gal writers' hasn't quite caught on yet--shall we start?) that I am in print.  Online.  In digit (as in format, not hand or foot).  Oh my, terminology is such a variable  thing...with all the alternatives, how do we make the right choices?

I notice that the editor has changed a word choice in the 'Writing (etc.)" essay, substituting "teaching artist" for 'teacher,' which is the word I had written.  After living in India where tradition has it that teacher is third deserving of respect/reverence only after God and parents, and having been a teacher for thirty years and more, the term 'teacher,' for me, conveys a world of responsibility, skill, and respect (although opinions and teachers may differ).  'Teacher' has all the substance and wonder (wonderment or wonderful, take your pick) that my essay required, and indeed honored.

But the editors, bless their hearts, have their own messages to convey.  In this case, making a statement that writing is an art form.  I would not disagree. But 'writing' itself is a term for a respected and skilled occupation.  Other people, who could be writers too if they just realized the potential and practice of writing down the thought and spoken word, often express awe and wonder when they find out I am a writer.  So I do not believe the term 'teacher' is enhanced by changing it to 'teaching artist.'  In fact, the two word term, repeated as often as it is in the essay, becomes somewhat of a distraction, too weighty in diction for the purpose, which, in my mind, was already served.

Come to think of it, even the humblest occupation, say doing the dishes, can become an art form, a spiritual discipline. Think of Brother Lawrence.  Attitude, attitude, attitude, (and practice).

In the end, however, I bow to the editor.  The piece was published, after all. And I thank you very much. Personally,  I will continue to use the simple, direct term 'teacher.'  With all due respect.

(Stay tuned to, where you are now, for tales of this year's adventures in India, probably not the ones you might expect, beginning after a week or so.  You can 'follow' via the link on the right hand side of this page --->, to receive an email notice whenever I make a new entry, at least once a week, for the about next six weeks. No advertising etc. emails will accrue, 'promise.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dawn, a new day...

Morning fades pastel pinks and blues into a wispy-clouded, baby blue sky, sun hesitates, it's eight a.m. and I'm back at the desk, stealing a few moments before speaking with others, breakfasting, segueing into the activities of a new day.  Morning meditation has me noting, once again (do we ever really learn?) Micah 6:8, that the ultimate to-do list is simply three items:  do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. So let me give it a try, with the help of God.

(I was about to say 'Let me give it a shot,' then many phrases and sayings we have in our language which could be construed as violent...and what would happen if we purged them in favor of more neutral or gentle terms...)

Later in the day, I hear that an essay I wrote, describing first impressions of a writing class I enjoyed, will be published online next week.  You can find it at <> in their blog page, "The Writers' Block."  I hope you'll give it a look:  Let me know if the essay gives you a mental picture of the LOFT can leave a comment right on their blog.

You can also sign up to 'follow' me under the blue bar on the right side of my personal blog page, <>. Then you'll get an email-reminder, with a link right in the reminder, that you can click to return to my blog, whenever I add something there. No advertising emails will result, I promise!

Monday, September 1, 2014

30 Day Journal Challenge, Day 30: Keeping Hope Alive

On this last day of the ROOT 30 Day Journal Challenge, the originator of the challenge, Lisa Sonora offers a Chinese proverb as inspiration:

Thank you, Lisa, for making me focus on inspiration, per se.  Though I tend to catch the moments of inspiration as they fly, it's good to have 'swept out' that part of the creative mind, to consider sources and be reminded to remember, access, celebrate, and honor my sources of inspiration by intentional as well as spontaneous writing practice.

In Lisa's daily handful of prompts today, the one that calls to me is:

The answer comes swiftly: my grandchildren.  Whether stopped by a song during a tantrum,  eyes twinkling when we meet, narrating a delightful experience or anxiety, or a rush and a hug in the midst of a crowd of relatives, their love is unconditional.  And so is mine.

Deo gratias.

As other thinkers, writers, and musicians have so often written, I honor the ultimate source of joy and inspiration with the words, soli deo gloria, my humble, pooh-like praise.

(Alas, my inability, thus far, to control the background color and relative size of cut-and-paste quotes.)