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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Source of Our Joy

Source of Our Joy, by Shirley Smith Franklin                                                                 
                                                                                               Last week in December, 2015

In this mixed up and topsy-turvy world, full to bursting with hopes and fears, migrations, mountains quaking, icebergs and oceans melting and heating, how and to whom does Christmas come?

Does it come as strong arms lifting a frightened child from the tired arms of a parent clambering out of a boat onto firm ground of uncertain refuge? Does it come in the form of barbaric acts and sweeping migrations in the name of God and freedom?  A volunteer chatting the evening away with a stranger who has outlived all her relatives and friends.? Children’s memorized recitations and role-play? Amplified voices exhorting the faithful to praise or to pray, now and forevermore? School children decorating place mats and singing for senior citizens? Worshipers streaming to and from the church (ten thousand is a modest estimate of the crowd at our neighborhood church despite wearying sixty minute sermons, and ear-splitting audio-over-amplification) during five hours on Christmas Day? In the form of a skinny teenage mother nursing a toddler at the street corner, resting, along with a few more beggars, in the glare of the noonday sun from their holiday windfall from door-to-door canvassing for a few rupees, ripe fruit and old clothes? A child asking the origin and meaning of the word Christmas? Does it come on the wind as music, old familiar or shrill new, songs in so many languages that only God could understand them all? As instantly translated high level talks among world leaders in well lit, lofty chambers? In an outdoor, candle and moonlit circle of worshipers with a background of gently throbbing drums?  Crinkle and crush of bright wrappings  tossed aside from gifts of more or less thought and value, given out of duty or love?  In three family members rushing another to the ER, or the medical team bending over him or her, just as the angels once bent low to sing their song of life-giving love?

How has Christ come for you this Christmas?

And where will you seek Him in the year to come?


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seven Days and Counting, Part Two

We sleep.  And sleep.  As we emerge from the disorientation of long travel and topsy turvy timing, new and remembered details of people, place, and thing slip through consciousness like details of scenery viewed from a moving train.

Half a dozen bright parrots tumble into the neighbor's wild-branched jaama-kaya (guava) tree, thrash about in pairs. fly swiftly off. Is the guava tree their home? Or just a trysting place? Another day, a solitary red-beak contemplates the concrete dominated neighborhood from a window ledge on the back of the house, flies away when I move closer for a better look.

Pushpa and Raghava, our cleaning/assistant cook and cook/driver/"local yellow pages" are back to help us five and eight hours a day, five or six days a week.  'Hard to find words to explain to folks at home in US how and why we employ people here to do things we do ourselves in the 'states. I'll tell you after thinking about it some more.

We listen and try to re-orient ourselves to old and new details about people, places, things. The first one up unlocks the front door, opens casement windows for cooler air, makes a cup of tea.  Raghava slips in, greets us in a hush, makes more tea.  Murmured conversation.  Pushpa arrives: ditto, as she sets to work on breakfast or chopping veggies for lunch. She giggles at the prospect of learning to cook from Raghava, our usual cook cum driver, and is amused at my renewed attempts to teach her to sort the laundry by compatible color.

Our elevator has been kept in good repair, glides and stops smoothly, even sounds quieter than a year ago. Our elbows are exercised (Arya will know what I mean) as we drag the heavy, double grilled doors open and shut, but before we can, an annoyed woman's voice scolds from within the elevator shaft, "Please shut the DOOR!!"

I’m awakened from nap one afternoon by a rush of young chatter...A single line of white and blue uniformed school children and pairs of saree clad teachers from a nearby school stride along two sides of the block, heading, I learn, for an annual government school census.  (Echoes of Bethlehem?!)  No doubt it’s a welcome diversion from the relentless study and schoolroom life of both teacher and child.  An hour later they come chattering back. Next day’s Deccan Chronicle compares the states’s school enrollment with actual attendance: both abysmal.

Voluntary demolition of modest homes and the building of apartments in this mid-city neighborhood is in full swing.  Concrete apartment buildings are under construction in front of and behind us. This seems to be the week to custom-cut the ubiquitous tile, the flooring of choice (and of necessity: trees are a protected species in India), and saw they do, from breakfast until bedtime. Conversations are dropped or shouted while relentless tile cutting  continues.  Grinding of condiments and soaked lentils in a mixie (heavy duty blender)  for our meals is nearly as loud.

The drilling ricochets against concrete walls, competes with loudspeakers blasting street hawkers and leaders of neighbourhood events, all of which proceed with great gusto, if not finesse: music, chanting and preaching of revival, wedding, worship, housewarming, or annual festival – Christian or Hinldu, all punctuated by the Muezzin calls-to-prayer from two directions. The over amplified finale of a Bollywood movie in a theatre a little over a block away. The beeps and motors of late night traffic. This frenzied soundscape continues well past midnight for the first few days of our visit. What have we gotten ourselves into???  I toy with the idea of going back home.

 In contrast, the usual silence from midnight to four thirty a.m. is near absolute. Then, a bucket being set down on tile, water splashing, birds chirping, the click of microwave opening or the starter over the gas stove, the patient swish, swish of street and doorway being swept with grass brooms, unique tunes of cell phones and cars backing out of parking spaces, all gradually crescendo long before the typical nine o’clock breakfast, by which time the elevator, traffic and construction are in full swing again.  A quiet hour between noon and two is soft and gentle on the ear.  Miss it and you will have a harder time napping when noises start up again.
It takes a few days to make out new and more robust cries of peddlers making their way along the street throughout the day: “Ooraguy! Oy, ooraguy!” (vegetables), or “Kamalaalu, appel, appel, kamalaalu” (“loose- jacket” sweet oranges, apples). Gone is the bulk salt seller with his near-regurgitating cry ,”Oop-poo (uppu means salt)!!”  Free flowing salt is now one of the multiplying packaged items flooding the market, replacing some of the peddlers. The paper collector adds his loudspeaker to the mix as he wheels his cart past: “Paper, bring out your paper stuff! Sell your old paper and gain a few rupees! Come and bring your useless paper, notebooks, newspapers, old books, school books  old God’s words (scriptures.)”  Really?  God’s word gets old?  I don’t think so.
Every morning, singing a hymn or two and reading from our tiny, worn, travelling new testament, given by friends for an anniversary, refresh me enough to face a new day.  Whether I read at random or continuously, there is always a word of narrative, exhortation, or consolation that stands out, surprises even, in its relevance to these days. 
But we long to hear our own children's voices, and phone them each, both to touch base and to update them and ourselves on relatives and friends.  Our daughter talks about her school going children. It's hard to believe we were at 'Grandparents' Day' with our granddaughter in Minnesota just a few days ago. Our son gives an update on their newborn, then asks how things are, over here.  I describe the frequent comings and goings of four local families of in-laws, two of whom live the same building, and walk freely in and our of our open door for a chat.  He asks pointedly, on the basis of his own experience, "Are you able to maintain some privacy for yourselves?
"Sure," I reply, "of course! We have our own separate place now, right?" Right...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Seven Days and Counting, Part One

If half a day is lost in travelling eastward over the date line, does it count as one day? As my dad might’ve said, “You tell me and we’ll both know.”                                                      
Our early December fourteen hour Houston-Dubai flight drags on...The traveller in front of me leans back, putting the screen too close for me to pass time with a movie.  I doze. Chat with Indian nurse in next seat. Eat. Walk the aisles to limber up. Doze.  Eat. Muscles cramp. 'Can’t wait to arrive in Dubai.   
Our pilot tips the plane this way and that for a dark-night view of the city’s Palm Island, a glittering fairytale work of urban art inscribed on the ocean. The air is clear and city lights lend a soft glow to ultra modern skyscrapers and more modest-looking neighborhoods. In a group of older passengers, we are shepherded through security at the huge shiny airport, while young men recheck endless lists and tickets, and deliver passengers to various gates along the way to ours.  It appears that we are a practice batch for young airport personnel.                                                                  
The three and a half hour Dubai-Hyderabad flight is more bearable.  My seatmate is a tall man with remarkably long and slender hands.  I ask politely about his destination.  Impassive, he does not reply. He checks out flight information, murmurs something to a portly passenger by the window, but most of the time sits quietly, hands folded in his lap. I guess that he might be a musician or artist. He seems to own the arm rest between us.  I lean toward the aisle, and watch “A Walk in the Woods” and part of the Hindi movie, “Bajrang Bhai Jaan.” ‘Sorry the flight ends before the movie, I make a note to see it later.  Our nieces have said it’s a must-see.
 Claiming luggage among our airbus crowd after quick immigration and customs clearance at 3 a.m. in Hyderabad's modern Rajeev Gandhi International Airport is predictably chaotic but polite. Everyone has too many overloaded bags, too many look alike.  Cell phones are out, for those lucky enough to have prior connectivity to local lines. Luggage carts and attentive porters help everybody sort things out, and soon we are claiming three hours’ respite and breakfast at a tiny, dimly lit, tranquil transit hotel in a lower level of the airport. (The bed fills our room, the bathroom is barely more than a pocket, but it's quiet!, clean, and more than adequate.) Time flies. The phone alarm seems to ring even before I've fallen asleep.                                                              
I want to stay longer, but my husband, understandably eager to reach home, hires a government licensed airport taxi, a red suv, for the five hour drive to Guntur.  Most of this trip is along a six lane national highway, with new bougainvillea plantings in the median, periodic truck stops, toll booths, gas stations and “meals-hotels” (we lunch at one) along the way. Heavy traffic and congested, restricted lanes in the nearby city of Vijayawada, on the banks of the Krishna River, take an extra hour, but we know Guntur is close by, and we are glad. 
  Dusk falls as we reach our gate.  Old and new apartment staff greet us and whisk our luggage up in the elevator. Everything is as we left it last spring. Tickled to be at home, but surprised by unprecedented surround-sound of nearby construction, we laugh and shrug at the ironies of ‘progress.’ Smiling relatives who have apartments in the building drop in to say hello, and bring us a bit to eat. before we drop into exhausted but sound and satisfying sleep. 
Evening and morning, and that’s the first day.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

We know who we are, and we know who you are,too.

While preparing this commentary, I heard of yet another paper detailing the uses of technology for the marketplace, named "We know where you live and we know who you are: The Instrumental Rationality of "Geodemographic Systems."  ( Jon Goss, U of Hawaii) I beg their pardon for usurping part of histitle, and admit that I know little about the field. These comments, and others on my blog, are unscientifically based on my own personal experiences and observations relating to identity, autonomy, and volition in modern day India.

A long but fascinating, almost scary, discussion of intelligent software that reads emotions appeared in The New Yorker, January 19, 2015), proclaiming, "We know how you feel."  That got me thinking of the Indian phenomenon of what I like to call 'group think,' or, "We know who you are." Emphasis on the we.

The topic has been on my mind for some time, and even came up here, in the states, as my husband recounted an encounter between our son and me. It had happened ten years ago; but my husband recounted the incident as though he had been the parent in that encounter. That being a very dear memory to me, I blurted out, "That was my story!" At which he hastily amended his version to "we..."

Many of us in the West have grown up in homogeneous communities, which are changing even as I write this.  As we live and move and have our being among a greater diversity of people, we have a lot to learn about each other, about how to be friends with each other, what is needed and how to respect one another's beliefs, customs, expectations and space.  What we don't know can give rise to fear or friendship, curiosity or criticism, teamwork or tension, welcome or withdrawal.

The same is true in India, and, for that matter, everywhere in this increasingly interconnected world which we inhabit.  So what's the difference in India?  I believe it has to do with the near-absolute density of the increasingly urban population along with a continually evolving,  incredibly rich and varied heritage from time immemorial, which continues, and increases by the minute.   Thanksgiving week, the news is that India's population has surpassed China.  And counting...

The result of being born and bred in such a closely knit yet infinitely diverse universe is, as I see it, often results in incredible poise and presence-of-mind, evident even in young children. At the same time, it engenders a joint ownership of, and group responsibility for, experience and behavior 'group think,' which to the independent American can prove exasperating, if not suffocating.  How to live and move gracefully in that context?  What happens when I want to claim ownership of my own thought and experience...Am I perceived as being peevish? How do I come across when just 'being myself'?
For that matter, who am I?  Besides being a beloved child of God, I  am accustomed to being defined by a variety of roles and relationships. Do my various internet profiles even begin to tell?

Food for thought...

Happy Thanksgiving

Cold. Windy. Snowy. Memories of childhood in northern Minnesota when Thanksgiving usually brought the first snow deep enough to be a soft landing for a child jumping off the edge of the front porch. Family gatherings now handed off to my own children, as our departure to spend another season on the other side of the globe nears.  Would I rather be here or there?   It's moot question.

As a child, I was taught, and now recall the words of St. Paul, "Wherever I go, I have learned to be content." Philippians 4:11 (Well, admittedly, I am still learning...)

May today, and the coming days, bring joy and gatherings, whether large or small,  with family or friends, or simply with yourself, remembering and counting our blessings. And being thankful.

Our family observes the custom of holding hands around the table as we pray the table prayer, affirming the connection as we "Shake the love around!" That wish extends to you, too. As we go forth into the coming days, may we remember to Share the love around as well

Wherever life finds you, God bless you. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Beautiful October Afternoon

Sunshine brings a glad brightness to yellowing green foliage, punctuated by sumac hurrahs of red and rust. Noon and the early afternoon hours are blessedly still.  Street construction crews and equipment are silent. The dust they've created all summer long settles on window and wall, even a a fine sprinkle has filtered into the house, sifting onto shelves and into cupboards.  But cleaning is suspended until the neighborhood's summer-long street project is complete.  (When, O Lord, when will that be?)

Outside our picture window, a scattering of box elder bugs rejoices in undisturbed sunlight,  their aerial versions of pop wheelies and stately mazurkas vying to impress.  Who feels sad, depressed, forlorn?

Come and see.

This show is free. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Work to Do and Ten Things I Have Left on Planes

Browsing in old and not-so-old journals, sorting and filing new poems and notes for revisions on old, discovering half-written, originally-never-intended-for publication poems.  Does this snippet from September 22 of this year qualify?

                                 Ten Things I have Left on Planes
                                       by Shirley Smith Franklin

My ticket
Two full size pillows
One shawl
One umbrella
Empty lunch bags, plastic, zip
One half-eaten chocolate bar
Every neck pillow I've owned
Several airline magazine contest entries, neat, complete, correct
One small notebook, with notes from the funeral of my very best friend forever
and contact information for her family
who were to tell me more about her  later
My heart
and all that makes the world
so bright, so beautiful, and fair.

She loved me. And I love her still.

Note to reader: [Is this a poem?  Does it matter whether it is? What do you think?]