An Early Sermon: Thick Darkness

Autumn

Autumn

Today’s reading comes from the book of Exodus.

Let us remind ourselves of the context in which this passage appears. The book of Exodus develops around themes that explore the nature of God (in terms of both divine power and also divine presence), the identity of the Israelite people, and the relationship between God and the Israelites, a relationship founded on God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah. Now a large nation, the Israelites, persecuted and enslaved by the Egyptians, cry out to God. The Lord hears their cry and remembers the promises made to their ancestors. In a revelation of divine power, God defeats Pharoah, decimating Egypt, and leads the Israelite people out from slavery and into the wilderness. Once in the desert, God’s presence with the Israelites remains constant, demonstrated by God’s miraculous provisions of water and food. Despite God’s visible power and presence, the uprooted Israelites struggle with their sense of disorientation and their lack of landed identity. Chapters 19-24, from which today’s passage comes, describe God’s descent from Mount Sinai to reveal the covenantal law to the Israelites. Thunder cracks, lightning rends the sky, smoke billows in dark clouds, fire blazes and trumpets blare in the wondrous theophany.

Hear now the words of scripture taken from Exodus chapter 20 verse 21:

Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the THICK DARKNESS where God was.”

10/22/10 Sermon

Thick Darkness

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I invite you to close your eyes. Now imagine yourself, like the Israelites, standing in the wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai. Far from the home you left in Egypt, the only sign of human habitation here is the camp that shelters you and your community from the harsh desert. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky, reflecting off the sand beneath your feet and glittering off of shards of rock on the face of the mountain before you. A slight breeze tickles the hair on your arms, and suddenly you find the sun above you shrouded, as though someone has lowered a veil over it. Lightning flashes, thunder rumbles, and you close your eyes against the approaching storm. When you reopen them, instead of a storm you find a cloud of thick darkness has descended. You can see nothing in it, nothing beyond it. The mountain, looming before you but a moment ago, has vanished. Goosebumps rise on your arms to meet the heavy dampness of the air. Thick darkness. What lays within it? Beyond it? Thick darkness. You will it to stay where it is; you will it not to come any closer, but you can feel its weight, you can almost taste it. Thick darkness.

Silence (5-10 seconds)

When you are ready, open your eyes, but hold onto that feeling of the thick darkness. Watch to see when most people’s eyes are open. I invite with you to share with the group: How did that feel? How did you feel standing in the presence of such thick darkness?

Wait for people’s answers. Repeat people’s answers as needed

[Did anyone feel afraid? Terrified? Alone? Disoriented? In danger? Ready to make a run for it?]

Thick darkness.

In our scripture reading, the Israelites stand at the base of Mount Sinai. The mountain has been shaken by thunder, illuminated by lightning, shrouded in smoke and burnt by flame; it has trembled to the sound of trumpets, and, now, before the Israelites, looms a Thick Darkness blocking the mountain from view. They are terrified. Yet, from the midst of this terrified crowd, one person steps forward, Moses. While we have learned to expect Moses to step forward to meet the Isrealites’ many troubles, we often forget this great prophet’s less than great beginnings. We forget who Moses is: an infant abandoned on a river; an outsider among the Egyptians with whom he grew up; an outsider among the Israelites, people of his own ethnicity; a murderer in exile; an alien in a foreign land; a shepherd, tending his father-in-law’s flocks; and an unwilling prophet, terrified, perhaps like some of us, of speaking in public. Yet God has chosen Moses, far from perfect, as flawed as any of the rest of us (did I mention he was a murderer?), to lead the Israelite people. Certainly, Moses has grown tremendously since he stood before the burning bush. Now, standing with the Isralites in front of this wall of darkness, Moses steps forward; he responds to God’s call upon him to lead and draws near to the thick darkness…. Pause. Feel again that thick darkness before you.

We, like Moses, are far from perfect. And, like Moses, we too hear God’s call upon us. As Timothy Kim preached last week, we often feel inadequate and unworthy to receive such a call from God, much less respond to it. Yet God does indeed call us to step forward, away from the comforting mass of people around us, God calls us out forth from our comfort zones. We may want to stand, hiding, deep within that crowd, deep within our comfort zones, hoping that God will not see us, dreading that when God DOES indeed see us, God will call us, God will call you and me, to step forward, to draw near to the thick darkness in the world around us.

These last two weeks, I have been thinking a lot about thick darkness. Two weeks ago, Hyde Park Union Church, where I am interning, launched its Urban Dolorosa Project – a ministry that sends clergy into those Chicago communities most affected by violence. These clergy venture forth to listen to the stories of people in these communities, many of whom have been affected by murders of brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, students, friends I have no doubt that these clergy go forth to do the work of God, that they answer a call to act out their Christian faith in the face of violence and death. In the face of thick darkness. Despite my conviction, when I think about entering into these neighborhoods myself, neighborhoods that are known for the incidence of violence, neighborhoods in which I (and many of the other volunteers) will stand out, where we do not belong, neighborhoods where people stay off the streets because the streets are dangerous, pause. When I think about this, I tremble. My heart races. My hands dampen with sweat. I feel as though I face a wall of thick Darkness. An impenetrable wall of darkness that hides I know not what, darkness in which I do not know which way to turn, darkness in which I feel disoriented, alone, vulnerable, unsafe. Thick Darkness.

What about your ministry? Pause. What are the places of thick darkness that you encounter or anticipate encountering?

Pause. Where are the places (literal or figurative) that you fear to go?

Pause. Where do you feel uncomfortable, disoriented, unsafe?

Pause. Perhaps you’ve already visited some of these places and fear going back…

I invite you, as you feel moved to do so, to share out loud these places of thick darkness in your ministry.

Respond to people’s sharing with the words: THICK DARKNESS.

Yes, our work is hard. It is terrifying. Sometimes God calls us to step out alone from the comfortable crowd of our community, to draw near to the thick darkness in the world around us. To enter into it.

But friends, there is good news. For, as this passage of Exodus proclaims to us, this THICK DARKNESS is where God is. Let me repeat that. This Thick Darkness is WHERE GOD IS. In drawing near to the thick darkness ahead of us, we draw near to God. This is good news, friends. GOOD NEWS.

Draw near to the thick darkness of ……… an unknown community…. where God IS.

(name one by one the thick darknesses that people named earlier, saying after each one “Where God IS”)

Afraid as we are, confused, disoriented, terrified as we are, God calls us to draw near, to enter into these places of thick darkness, and to encounter the divine that is there.

Let us pray: Mysterious One, beyond our deepest understanding, you who dwell in thick darkness, grant us courage to draw near you. Embolden us to step forward into the thick darkness of places and situations that terrify us. Grace us with the wisdom to recognize our own limitations, our own inexperience as we approach thick darkness, and renew our resolve to respond to your call in spite of these limitations, with humility and care. Fill us with faith, oh Gracious Spirit, to trust that in this thick darkness, we may, we will, encounter you. And in this thick darkness, crack open our hearts, that we may receive your transforming power. As we pray, we remember Jesus Christ, who lived his life drawing again and again near to the thick darkness where you are, and we pray these things in his name. Amen.

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My church internship, Fall 2010, Reflection #2

HPUC Tiffany Window

HPUC Tiffany Window

Beginning in October, 2010, I interned part-time (15-20 hours per week) at Hyde Park Union Church in Hyde Park.  Here is one of my early reflections on my time there.

Week 3 Reflection

I think that I am currently as excited about my field placement as perhaps I was nervous and a bit apprehensive last week. Yesterday I met with Susan and Zach (the two pastors) for the first time this quarter to talk about what I will be doing, when and where.  A lot of what we did was sort of re-orienting ourselves toward one another.  Susan did much of the talking at the beginning, and I chimed in quite a bit toward the end, Zach being the person to talk the least.  Susan and I are both talkers: we have a story that relates to everything and we’re happy to share it.  Which is wonderful, but we will have to watch our clocks on meetings because we could go on and on and on.  It looks a lot like this quarter will be mostly getting acclimated to the wider church and working with children in children’s sermons, Godly Play and Gifts (the program for elementary-aged children).  The church is full and busy and there are lots of hands to share the work, so I think that this will be the quarter to work on some of the more nitty-gritty things like figuring out how the budget gets balanced and attending meetings of various committees, working with others on planning adult education (though it sounds like their slots for adult education are filled with topics for the whole year, so my role will be assisting in planning and potentially running adult education classes that are already thematically planned and ordered), and working on the Urban Dolorosa planning and so forth.  I will preach beginning next quarter and it sounds like I will spend a fair bit of time both in the winter and spring at Jackson Park Hospital.

In sharing what most interests me, I highlighted Worship and Pastoral Care as the areas of greatest interest to me, sharing that I think one of the main goals of worship is to help people to experience the presence of the divine in all its awesome, comforting, challenging, sometimes frightening, sometimes securing wonder.  In a congregation such as HPUC, which strives to be deliberate about its diversity, worship also needs to honor this diversity and the diverse ways in which people experience the divine.  Furthermore, I find that part of worship’s power is an integrative approach to this goal, in other words linking the various pieces of the service so that people leave with a sense of cohesion, a thematic thread, an overarching message that they will carry with them as they leave to go out and serve the world for the rest of the week.  I’ve also heard people talk about worship as what you do to rejuvinate yourself and refresh your sense of calling and community in order to spend the rest of the week doing God’s work in the world, and this too provides a powerful goal for how worship might look on a Sunday morning.

On this note, this last Sunday’s worship service at HPUC, led by Zach and Lindsey, impressed me as achieving just this.  On Friday evening and Saturday morning, HPUC hosted the introduction to and kickoff of its Urban Dolorosa Project/Ministry.  Friday evening, the fellowship hall resounded with Father Michael Pfleger’s voice preaching to us about the violence and injustice done to our neighbors here in Chicago, in particular the violence experienced by many children in various of our Chicago neighborhoods.  He called for people to join together in claiming/accepting responsibility for what happens in a city we call ours.  After he spoke, several other women shared their own stories about teaching troubled students, many/all of whom have been victims of violence of one sort or another, about having a brother shot dead on all Hallow’s Eve.

In silence, the room echoed with the pain, the suffering, the fear, and the righteous anger these experiences expressed.  The next morning after more information about the situation in these neighborhoods as well as information about social efficacy, the idea of community strength through common everyday interactions and communal investment into a physical and emotional shared neighborhood space, the same fellowship hall rang out with questions, doubts, worries and fears of volunteers who plan to step out into these neighborhoods to learn about them, to walk their streets, to meet community members and leaders, to listen, to share in the burden of suffering and pain, to extend the message that: you are not alone; others in Chicago care about you and your children and your families; we are in this together.  These doubts and fears arose from the nebulous instructions about where to go and what to do.  We had heard the need for our actions, the need for our care, but we still felt our fear, many of us knowing that we will look like we do not belong in many of these neighborhoods strictly based on the color of our skin.  These fears were recognized certainly, but not necessarily addressed as people wished them to be.  Part of the reason for this being simply that this is frightening work, and the methods and goals are nebulous.

In any case, going back to the idea of worship, on Sunday morning, the service spoke directly to the work that people from this community as well as community’s outside of HPUC and even Hyde Park had been doing regarding the Urban Dolorosa Project on Friday and Saturday.  The message spoke of the violence that happens around us and called for a communal response to, a communal responsibility for, this violence.  Not only the message, but the hymns, the liturgy, the choir music and children’s message.  The worship service as a whole strived to, integratedly, bring forth the presence of God and challenge us out of our places of comfort to reflect on violence here in Chicago.  This, I think, is what worship is all about.

Regarding the pastoral care element of my interest this coming year, Susan spoke directly to my interest in working at Jackson Park Hospital (JPH) explaining that she and Wes are not interested in me dabbling at JPH, that one afternoon a week was neither sufficient for me to helpfully provide service at the hospital nor for me to really get the most out of this experience.  So it sounds as if, though this will need further confirmation, I will spend a significant amount of time at the hospital during the winter and spring.  This time will confront me with challenges that at this point, I can only imagine (but will not spend time or energy doing so), and likewise with rewards.  Lessons learned from others whom I observe as well as from successes and, even moreso, from mistakes that I make.  This too, will be a period of great growth, and I look forward to linking this with time in the pulpit as well, reflecting with the larger congregation on some of these experiences that they enable me to have.

There is much more I could say, but this for now is a reflection on my excitement of what is to come.  Ups and downs, as already seen, will continue to refract my experience over the coming months.

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Church Internship: Reflection #1

Hyde Park Union Church

Hyde Park Union Church

So I did not expect the first challenge of my field placement to be simply setting up a meeting with my teaching pastors to meet with them and begin to talk about my work at Hyde Park Union Church (heretofore referred to as HPUC) for the upcoming year. Granted, I extended my summer as long as possible, returning to Hyde Park on Friday September 25th, but I still assumed that my teaching pastors would want to meet with me as soon as possible and get me on board ASAP. I guess this assumption highlights a couple of things for me. One reminder regards the availability of pastors – I didn’t really expect them to be available to meet anytime 24/7, but I definitely did not appropriately account for how busy they actually are.

Another reminder for me, and I really should have known better since my own parents are pastors, and I feel that I have often received an inside-view of pastors’ lives as a PK (more on that later), is that having interns does not mean less work for the pastors but in fact more. I take up time that they could be putting into hospital visits, sermon preparation, community organizing and so forth. While I know that I have gifts and experiences to contribute to the HPUC community, I am also receiving a great deal from this community, not the least of which is their pastors’ time and energy. Going along with this, while I might be my own priority, I am not the pastors’ priority. This is hard for me to remember sometimes. I will be the first to admit that I have a big ego – I like to be liked, I think I am valuable and have valuable things to say, I think that I am worth another person’s time and energy. And hey, let’s be honest, I am often caught up with the universe as it is from my perspective. And, humanly, I forget that this perspective is, in fact, unique to me. So I sometimes wonder why other people are not paying me mind. This difficulty with scheduling a first meeting, then, is a reminder that, while the work and learning I will be doing at HPUC is important, the congregation and its pastors have a whole lot of other things going on. (Which is one of the reasons I chose HPUC as a teaching congregation.)

I think perhaps, the reminders about my own self-centerdness provide worthwhile points of reflection as I enter into this internship. I want to be mindful about how and where I extend myself and to remember that ministry, and thus my ministry internship, is not really about me. The lack of a meeting within the first two weeks of school has nothing to do with me personally. At the same time, I do bring my own self and life and wellbeing with me into this position, and I also want to be mindful of my own needs and desires in the context of this internship. I want to make sure that I get out of it what I want and need, and one of those things will be my teaching pastors’ time and energy, and I need to assert myself in asking for this if it is not readily available.

On a completely different note, having not yet started my internship but having attended Sunday service several times with my mind towards an internship, I have found that I tend to look with an extremely critically trained eye – the eye of a PK who would spend at least half an hour, and often longer, in conversation with my parents after attending any church service but especially those at which my parents were not presiding. Conversation would cover everything from how well the church attended to us as visitors (if we were such), to whether the pastors used inclusive language, to the childrens’ message, the liturgy, the feel of the church and of course the sermon itself. I find that this critical eye for details in church has followed me to HPUC (it will probably follow me everywhere for the rest of my life). Of course, I do not notice everything, but I do notice a fair bit. And I have lots of opinions!

Something that will be important for me to work on over the course of this quarter, and the longer year, is how to observe critically but withhold judgment, how to see areas in which I would do things differently and ask: why do they do it like this? How does it affect the clergy, the deacons, the lay people to do it this way? What might the benefits and the costs of doing it this way be? How might I do it differently and why? Depending on how invested I am in the particular piece of the service or ministry, I may choose to ask one my teaching pastors these questions to really get a handle on why things are done as they are. For some things, I am sure that I will find there are well-thought out reasons that I agree with. For others, there will be well-thought out reasons with which I disagree. And for others still I may find that no one has really thought about it or no one has made the effort to change how these things are done. In which case I may/will have the opportunity to suggest some of my own ideas.

The big things here are for me to practice critical thinking without judgment (they are all too easy to pair together) and to have the courage to ask about and offer other ideas for certain things that I decide are important to me.

I am looking forward to meeting with Susan and Zach (my teaching pastors) on Tuesday to begin my internship at HPUC. I hope this year and my experience there will provide space and time and experience for discernment for me. Questions such as: do I belong in the church (at all)? If yes, where and how? What are the gifts that I bring (something I am learning in the context of other spiritual communities)? How much can I share with other Christians the lessons that I have learned from people of other faith traditions and from my witness of the practice of other traditions? Can I be a multi-faith Christian theologian? And what does this look like in the church?

I also want to be very aware of my need to balance time and care for myself while also caring for others. More and more, again and again, I am reminded that if my body, my mind and my spirit (in other words – ME) are not healthy, then what I have to offer to others is diminished and I can even sometimes do more harm than good.

As you can see, I’m also a reflecter, and it will be important for me to find ways in which to helpfully reflect on my time in and out of my congregation in ways that help me but that are also not unduly cumbersome on others.

I’m looking forward to this journey. Please keep reminding me that I’m not alone, God goes with me always and everywhere, and if it’s getting too much, I can turn it over to God. If it is becoming too much about me, I MUST humbly turn it over to God. And whatever I do, I should keep a sense of humor about it and not take myself too seriously!

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Back in Chicago, September 2010

Autumn Comes

Autumn Comes

Back in Chicago after traveling in India and Nepal for 3 months.  Things are good.  Yesterday turned into the first beautiful day since I’ve been back, and I went downtown and met up with my friend Lauren, which was great!!!  Then came home and ran errands: got my bike fixed and bought a lock for it, so now I’m riding it around everywhere, which is awesome!  It’s red, too and smoothe and so much lighter and easier to ride than the other one that I was using.  My computer’s been acting up, so I took it to the IT place to have them take a look at it.  I’m hoping that’ll help some.  Just the initial stuff is $40 though, which is annoying, especially considering how much we pay to go to school here (well, not me, I guess, but in general).  So that felt good.  Then I hung out at home with the kitty, did a bunch of reading, went for the run (I’m so slow, but really wanting to build up my muscle mass again – it’s nice to have a strong body).

Life with Mike, my new flatmate, is good.  We have been eating breakfast together (oatmeal), which is good for both of us,and a great thing for me to be eating!  Grin.  So that’s good.  I have yet to make a kichadi dish, but I’ve been eating left-overs, so that works out okay.  I think that the reason the kitchen was a mess was mostly because Mike wasn’t here – but he’s good about it now, which is great.  We’ll be sharing a lot of our groceries, I think, which is also nice.  I’ve been drinking lots of decaf tea and think I should have people over soon to make some of the fancier darjeeling and Chinese teas.  Smile.  I’ve been doing great at not having caffeine!  You would be proud.  I am now back to my regular old number, which I discovered yesterday after calling my brother and him saying that my number just showed up as usual with my name.  We had a good chat yesterday, Mandla and I – he’s LOVING his college residential-life work, and his work in the public schools where he must be doing stuff for his movement and music for preschoolers class.  The big news from his front was that he and Claire broke up a couple of days ago.  It had sounded like it was coming, but I hadn’t heard that it had already happened.  He sounded sad to have hurt her (it sounds like she’s pretty upset) but also relieved and feeling like this was the right thing for him to have done.  So that’s good.  Grin.  We really did have a great conversation!

I’m doing the morning meditation thing on Saturday, which should be good!  My meditation practice needs a bit of a boost.  I’ve been at least sitting, but not for long (about 20 minutes a go).  So I’m hoping this’ll kick me into shape!  Grin.  I’m not going to be auditing a class.  I’m just going to take the Thursday class (History of Christian Thought 1) with a bunch of other people from my cohort, and then Preaching and Practicom (having to do with my internship).  So that’s all quite good, I think.  I’ll have to be very diligent about picking days to just head to the library and do my reading and writing and then one or two days to just claim as days off.

Thinking about days off: I think that I’m going to buy my plane ticket for the afternoon/evening of the Sunday before Thanksgiving to come to NYC.  Then you and I can drive back to Chicago the weekend/early week after Thanksgiving.  I’m going to take that Sunday (after Thanksgiving) off of work as well as the Monday afterwards try to take off of DDH stuff.  So that would leave us until Tuesday or Wednesday to get back here.  How does that sound?  by that time, it’ll be the last week of classes and then just finals!  CRAZY!  How time does pass.

Anyway, I’ve been rambling for ages.  I’ll look forward to talking with you soon!

Much much love,
Thandiwe

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Udaipur

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Udaipur Sunset

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Architecture: old and new

Udaipur, known for its European feel, is an easy place to be a tourist with its luxurious guest houses nestled on the shores of a lake, in the center of which is its Lake Palace, far beyond the meager funds I have brought with me on my travels.  Almost every backpackers’ guest house advertises its own 7:00 pm showing of “Octopussy,” the James Bond movie filmed here way back when.  It’s certainly a beautiful place and, though an easy place to be a traveler, also a place that is India still with cows wandering along with tourists, young boys on motorbikes asking for their picture taken, a cigarette dangling from his lips, a prop to complete the image.  Here are some of my favorite photos from my time there.

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Picturesque indeed!

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Cows in the Street

Cows in the street
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Street conversations

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Temple steps

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Buying flowers

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Rajasthan in pictures: Camel Safari

My ride for the day

My ride for the day

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Oh so regal

Oh so regal

 

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Rajasthan in Photographs: Jodhpur

Waiting for the train

Waiting for the train

 

Train station

Train station

Jodhpur: blue city beneath the fortress

Jodhpur: blue city beneath the fortress

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Blue city detail

Blue city detail

Entering the palace/fortress

Entering the palace/fortress

 

View from above

View from above

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Turban tying demonstration

Turban tying demonstration

pigeon-holes

pigeon-holes

Trident

Trident

Well-pleased with the day

Well-pleased with the day

A last view of the Blue City of Jodhpur

A last view of the Blue City of Jodhpur

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Turning my volume up

November 27, 2012
It’s funny looking back at this blog six months since my last post and seeing how much it is a history of a relationship that has now been over for almost a year.  Yes, there is a way in which telling of this relationship has been telling about my life, but my life is so much bigger.  It was always so much bigger.  Funny isn’t it how time and distance can grant one perspective.  Even on where one was at not-so-long ago.  Funny how such an important part of life is attention – looking and seeing.  I have long liked to think of myself as someone who has long been able to pay attention, to see the world around me and yet more than anything else, I have struggled to see myself, to see my own world, to pay attention to me.  Instead, I find myself keen on others, paying attention to my relationships, making sure everyone else is alright.  It’s important, of course, to do these things.  But it’s important to, as a dear friend of mine once told me, “be the hero of your own story.”  A few years later, this same friend told me to turn other people’s volume down and turn my own volume up.
So that’s what I shall do – turn my volume up.  I’ll continue to track my life and growth and living.  Even retrospectively as I have been.  But I’m done telling the story of relationships or my work.  I’m going to turn my volume up!  It’ll be a while before I post again.  Mostly because I have finals in two weeks.  I’m finishing up my final year of Divinity School, and I am determined to live to tell the story.  And to have a bit of fun along the way.
And just for good measure, today, I’m so grateful for the bite in the air.  For an excuse to wear a bright yellow scarf, for the bare trees that cast their silhouettes against the pale sky, for the darkness, yes, even for the darkness.

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Varanasi: karma catching up

Varanasi.  A place where they say your karma catches up to you.  A place where they say if you die, you are released from the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth.  Freed.  It is intense, this place where people come to die.  Where people come to bathe in the holy rivers of the Ganga, washing their karma from them, sort of like the Christian waters of baptism.  Where people come to study.  Where people come to see India – in all its messiness. It’s been an intense place for me to be – I’ve thought a lot about the present and the future. 

The Ganga: view from our guest house

Sweat drips down my face as I sit in a close windowless cyber cafe with a fan whirring ominously above.

Nick, Jon and me

Yesterday, I was kind of feeling low, not sure whether I needed to go out walking and enjoy getting out into the town or just curl up and rest.  J was ready to head out and do some exploring, when a friend of ours from Vipassana in Kathmandu showed up (J had found out that he, Nick, was in Varanasi and told him our guest house – River View Guest House right on the ghats).  The timing was really perfect.  It meant I sort of had to pull things together and it made me feel normal and good and beautiful.  I found reserves of strength and beauty and groundedness that I had forgotten or not known I had and smilingly went out with Nick and J.  We wandered a bunch, through the narrow alleys where tourists from all over India and the world gather, through to the wider streets of the bazaar, wider but so much more clogged with people.  We got food and I got the best paan I’ve ever eaten, then we wandered and talked some more.  Eventually we made our way back to our hotel, where we parted ways with Nick.

Rooftop view

Later in the evening, J and I ventured out to the ghats where the evening rituals are held – lots of people and a mixture of the feeling of ancient ritual mixed with cultural performance (the audience was a mix of Hindu pilgrims participating peripherally in the ritual with their voices, hand claps and butter lamps added to the mixture of things, then there were also Indian and foreign tourists on the steps leading down to the performance spot on the river’s edge and also in boats crowding in for the closest view from the water).  It was a strange sort of scene at which J and I stayed only a little while.  From there we headed to a temple to which an Indian man with henna-oranged hair led us.  When he found we had not brought our passports, which would allow us entry, he offered to take us to some burning ghats, which he did.  There another man met us and explained the process of cremation to us – surrounding the ghat on three sides are mother Theresa Hostels where the sick and old come to await their death.  20-30 cremations take place a day here, with iron wood used to burn the bodies (200kg of iron wood at rs150 a kg – rs30 000 to cremate a body – almost US$1,000 – a LOT of money).  We watched and listened, rivulets of sweat coursing down our bodies.
We made our weary way back to our hotel at last.  That was yesterday.  And today a new day. And I’m excited to continue to explore Varanasi, a city with so much depth.  You can almost hear the history whispering through the cracks in the walls.
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arriving in Varanasi

Sunrise on the Ganges

August 25, 2010
Dear Mum, Dad, Mandla, Nicki and Shawnrey,
How do you five like to be the folks that I send off my brief note about arriving in Varanasi?  How are you all?  J and I had a bit of a funny time leaving Orissa.  We actually missed our train because we had changed the date of our ticket to a couple of days early and assumed that we were on the same train leaving at the same time and didn’t bother looking at our tickets (I know – stupid) until we actually got to the train station at 11:30 for our 12:15 train and Jon took out the tickets and asked, “Why does it say departure 1055?  Wry smile. Anyway, we decided to turn our lemon into the best lemonade ever, sucked it up and paid for tickets for the next train out of Puri at 9:50pm, giving us the entire day to bum around the town.  We checked our bags at the train station and headed to the old part of town and the Sun Temple to check it out again.  Good times and some cool photos taken of all the pilgrims there.  We had some lunch then decided, upon my request, to splurge and spend the beautiful day at a swimming pool where I could swim in a bathing suit (as opposed to the full-length mumu/nighty/dress that I wore in to swim in the ocean near Konark).  So we went to a hotel we’d read about in a guide book, but their pool was being cleaned.  They recommended another place called Hotel Hans Coco Palms (I know, hilarious name!) that was across town.  We hopped into a rickshaw and headed over there.  It turned out, we had missed half of Puri!!!!  The area the rickshaw drove us through was jam packed full of hotel upon hotel built for Indian (primarily Bengali, I think) tourists!  There must have been 2 solid miles of hotels two or three deep across from a promenade and the beach.  The hotels were generally larger, shinier and overall more expensive looking than the backpackers’ lodgings over on the side of town where we had stayed.  Saari shops boasting Orissa hand-woven saaris and men’s churidars filled in the spaces between the hotels, and the restaurants clearly catered to an Indian clientele.  As we drove in, the beach was lined with covered carts, and I mused as to their opening in the evening.  We figured the swim was going to be worth it just to have witnessed this other part of town which, so it seemed, most westerners (including us, almost) missed entirely.
The pool was beautiful – a bit of a splurge, but for an afternoon of utter escape and relaxation (in a bathing suit, no less), it was well worth it!  The water was about the same temperature as the air, aqua blue with frangipani trees leaning over it in some places and spreading its flowers’ sweet aroma over the water. It turns out J loves water as long as it is warm, so he and I had a blast paddling around, reading Kipling’s “Kim” (a brilliant book for any of you who hasn’t read it and is interested in a delightful look into India 100 years ago, with surprisingly much still the same now) and simply lounging.
We ventured back out around 7:15 pm, after it was already dark, and the streets that had previously been cleared by the blazing afternoon sun was now mobbed with people and stalls selling all sorts of knick-knacks, pearl (fake or otherwise?) jewelry, light-up and noise-making toys, brick-a-brack and tons of snacks (including deep-fried, soft-shell crab, which J and I had to give a try!).  The beach had taken on a carnavalesque atmosphere with people’s conversation, venders calling out wares, lights, the smell of fried foods.  Hm!  Smile.  Jon and I had stepped into another world, the Indian beach resort side of Puri, otherwise mostly an Indian pilgrimage site.  And what a world it was!  Grin!

Boats on the Ganges

Anyway, we DID catch our 9:50 pm train out of Puri and arrived in Bodhgaya the day before yesterday at 2:00pm.  I’m glad to have gone to Bodhgaya, but have to say that of all the Buddhist spots I’ve hit so far, it is probably my least favorite.  Im sure it would be different in the winter time when Buddhists come from all over the world in great numbers to spend time there.  The Mahabodhi temple is certainly worth seeing, but neither Jon nor I were charmed by anything else.
And then Varanasi…..  We got dropped off (we took an auto rickshaw from the train station to the heart of the city) near the ghats – they are mostly covered by the river, swollen in the monsoon rains – and walked down toward them and the guest house that had been recommended us by J and my friend Davey.  It was a little bit of a challenge to find, and we ended up following signs through a dingy corridor littered with paper and bricks and debris, up some dark stairs to a little awning where sat a roundish and jolly man.  He showed us a small room – sparse by any standards but that lets out onto a little balcony that overlooks the river.  J and I, immediately charmed, agreed to stay.
The proprieter and his wife are lovely!  And I think J and I will feel quite at home at the little guest house (whose name has changed from “sun view hotel” to “river view hotel”).  We stepped out after a very little bit of unpacking to get some dinner and had an incredibly delicious thali (meal) of rice, papadam, a daal with greens cooked in (make my day!), some sort of sauteed green bell peppers, okra and yogurt.  We shared an Indian sweet and paan for desert and came a-searching for the internet, which J has been needing to use for a few days.  I will soon try to get inspired and work on a blog that I have decided to begin: it will consist of my mass emails and perhaps some other random writings from when I first started sending out the emails 5 1/2 years ago, on my first trip to India.  It should be fun to put together and hopefully fun for folks to read as well.  Speaking of which, Mum, Dad and Shawnrey, do you have any of those first emails I sent out?  I sent them from my Pomona account and don’t have access to that account anymore.  It would be lovely if you would forward them my way.  I’ll send you the link to the blog as soon as I have anything up on it!
Anyway, this email turned much longer than I expected.  Perhaps I’ll send it out to my email list as well – there are tons of stories from Sikkim and Orissa that I have yet to tell.  Oh my.
I love you all lots and can’t wait to see each of you soon, I hope.
Much  much love,
Thandiwe
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