Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Something There is That Loves a Wall

When I was in high school I had a literature teacher named Mr. Ruegsegger that I just adored.  Many of us did.  He was very gifted at taking poems and stories that were remote and making us understand how to relate to them.  Come to think of it, he might be the first person I encountered who really employed "student-centric" discussion techniques, you know, instead of asking what Shakespeare thought about love and how that was displayed in Romeo and Juliet, he might have asked, "What do you think it's like to be in love?  At 13 how do you know that someone is telling the truth when they say they love you?"  This kind of teaching scares some people, I find it absolutely thrilling, both as the student and the teacher.

Well, when I was a senior and no longer in Mr. Ruegsegger's class, a group of us got to talking about how much we missed his lessons.  We must have told him, maybe we wrote a card.  Anyway, he started sending presents, one for each of us, that arrived in our Art History class at random times over the course of a couple of weeks.  Using a jigsaw, he had made wooden block-print chachkis of our first names; each name was ornamented with something different...I don't remember what the first few people had, maybe flowers, a tree...whatever they were, I remember them being pretty.  On the back of each name bauble was a poet's name.  We figured out that whatever symbol he had attached to our name corresponded to the first line of a poem written by that poet, and that poem, in some way, was meant to represent something he saw in us.

When mine finally arrived, I opened it with great anticipation.  As expected, there was my name; towering up above my name was a wood colored brick wall, in the wall was a heart painted  red.  On the back, it said Robert Frost.

I was very taken aback by the ugly wall.  Then I found the poem, 'Mending Wall'.  In my memory, the first line of this poem is, "Something there is that loves a wall."  I remember being hurt that he saw me as something that loved a wall.  Then I realized he was telling me that I was a person with lots of walls, which made me feel very vulnerable, too seen.  I tried to tell myself that I was an open book, that he was wrong.  Eventually I resented him for implying that I was trying to hide myself away.

Over the years, as I've come to terms with the parts of myself that I've been afraid of, as I've opened up some rooms of my soul that had been closed even to me, I have thought about that poem and felt much gratitude for Mr. Ruegsegger who was giving me such a kindly tip.

The university here in Santiniketan is putting up a wall.  Ostensibly, it is to clarify the boundaries when UNESCO proclaims this town a world heritage site.  But it is also to keep the village folk from mucking up this rather affluent and bucolic berg.  Ironically, when Tagore built this school on the land his father gave him, the intent was to have a place where misfits like himself could learn without the usual constraints of more traditional and well boundaried schools.  Classes were to be held outside, in the open air.  If it rains, class is cancelled, even today.  The unusual and whimsical were meant to be fostered and nurtured.  Tagore himself had over 25 different houses on the grounds so that when he wasn't feeling inspired in one place he could easily switch things up.  He went to great lengths to make sure that, as more and more outsiders came to Santiniketan to study, that the indigenous population of artists and crafts persons were looked after and trained so that their livlihoods, as well as, their imaginations were kept healthy and strong.

But now a literal divide is being built to keep the wealthy in and the rabble out.

Turns out there are a lot of walls in India.  Certainly, the caste system itself is an ancient societally sanctioned way of separating people from inauspicious partnerships of all kinds.  I encounter whispers of this every morning when I go to make my coffee and Minou, the woman who watches the house with her husband Jahor, insists on heating my water and doing my dishes.  I have tried to do my dishes.  Would love to do my dishes, but she insists on doing them.  It is a boundary I cannot cross.

On Sunday I began working in earnest with a group of young women who live in the various tribal villages around Santiniketan.  We are using a Tagore piece called Chitra as a jumping off point for what I hope will be a very personal story about being a young woman in India today.  Chitra was a warrior princess that fell for a celibate warrior prince who spurned her when he encountered her in pants.  In order to lure him from his vows, Chitra asks the Gods to change her buff and mannish exterior, toned by years of honing her skills on the battlefield, into that of a lovely, soft, delicate and useless woman.  They grant her wish and Arjuna, her prey, is immediately smitten and abandons his past life instantly to be with the intoxicating beauty that was once Chitra.  Chitra regrets her actions from the moment Arjuna succumbs to her false identity, but she is also helplessly drawn into his arms.  They stay entwined for almost a year.  But then Arjuna becomes restless.  Chitra won't let him really get close to her emotionally because the Gods only gave her a year in disguise and she feels certain Arjuna will abandon her when she reverts to her true self.  But her lover wants to know her and tells her so.  He also tells her that he's heard of a remarkable woman named Chitra who could fight like a man and he wonders where she is and what she is like.  Eventually she bites the bullet and reveals herself to Arjuna.  Emotionally naked, Chitra is not spurned, but embraced by her beloved.

I was very excited to get working on the issues laid bare in Chitra of identity, shame, expectations.  I had a whole series of student centric questions (wouldn't Mr. Ruegsesser be proud?) like:  Do you ever wish you could be something different than you are?  Why?  Do you feel that you have expectations you have to live up to?  Chitra obviously thinks she isn't attractive the way she is and that there is an ideal Arjuna is looking for?  Is that true today?  Do you think there's one kind of woman or one thing men are looking for in a woman?  Chitra had so many strengths other than traditional feminine beauty....what is it about yourself that you hope people will  see in you that you know is wonderful and beautiful?  Etc. Etc. Etc.

As one does when one is formulating a syllabus, I had certain expectations of where the conversation would go.  I imagined us talking about physical beauty and the ideals of the media that men are expecting to see in the everyday women around them.  I had even downloaded three different images that google gave me when I searched for "Indian Beauty" in hopes that we could analyze the pros and cons of each type.  Eventually I wanted to get them discussing and drawing portraits of themselves that highlighted their particular brand of beauty.

Inadvertently I had created a wall before I'd even gone into the classroom.  I built this wall with all my own ethnocentric ideas of what women in the west worry about when being courted by men, or hoping to be courted by men.  I'd greatly underestimated the cultural chasm created by the strange dance that women go through on their way to an arranged marriage and the (to me) bizarre reality that brides in India face once they are wives.

When I asked the girls in the class what they think men want in a woman, all of them said, "MONEY!"  No hesitation, the dowry was the number one concern, they felt, for men.  If a woman was beautiful, it might lower the dowry, but only a little.  There were a few village women who came from a custom where the man actually paid for a bride, instead of the other way around, but the price was a whopping 12 and a half rupee and a cow.

After I grappled with the paradigm shift of money being more important than beauty, I tried to get them to discuss what it was like, once money concerns were out of the way, to meet the boys they were going to spend their lives with.  Like Chitra, I asked, did they worry about what the boys might want them to be.

The women who were married started to tell me about their marriage stories.  One girl who was 14 when she met her husband-to-be said she didn't even bother to get dressed up when he was coming over to meet her.  When he arrived with friends, he demanded that someone put her in a sari and bring her out to show herself to him.  She became so nervous walking up the steps to the roof where he was waiting, that she inadvertently stepped on her sari and it came undone and opened up.

I pounced on the admission of nervousness.  "What," I tried to ask through Chandana, my heroic translator, "were you nervous about?"

There was silence, stony looks.  I wondered if I was being unclear.  I was, after all, feeling my way through new territory and trying to convey myself through someone elses word.  Chandana asked them if it was unlucky to talk about such things; superstitions are very powerful in the villages.  But it was not deemed unlucky.

I experimented with the question; Chandana gamely played along.  But I couldn't seem to get a toe-hold in.  I didn't want to come out and blatantly say, "Oh, come on, when you were paraded in front of the man who held the fate of your life in his hands, the man who had the power to say, 'yes, I want you,' or 'no, you aren't good enough', you didn't have any insecurities about yourself, or desires that he would love you for who you really are?"

Finally I realized that I needed to try and coax the youngest girls into talking, the three who were still not married, though one 14 year old is getting offers.  I gently tried to ask them if they worried about what might be expected of them.  One girl finally, FINALLY, spoke up.  She said that she was nervous about going to her mother-in-law's house and feared that her husbands family wouldn't appreciate her sense of humour.  Then another girl said she was afraid that she wouldn't know how to cook well enough.  Another said she worried about losing her mom and the comfort she gives her, knowing full well that her mother-in-law is apt to be unsympathetic to her.  Turns out, the soon to be brides are more hung up on what their future husband's mother and family will make of her, more than they are of their husbands.  It is traditional that brides go to live in the one or two room houses of their in-laws.

The oldest woman in the class, the leader of the group, had been subtly blocking my questions all along.  A teacher herself, this woman had obviously only expected to study Chitra from an academic and removed point of view.  I seemed to be hitting too close to home for her comfort.  She got very defensive and started telling the young girls that things were changing,  "Now that kind of stuff only lasts for a few years with your in-laws, but after two or three years the in-laws don't treat a daughter in law badly."

I could see this woman had walls.  I learned later that she was the only woman who had not moved into her husband's family's home.  He had moved into hers.  There's a name for that in these parts, and it's not pretty.  He'd also, subsequently, been disowned.  She'd never had to deal with a bossy mother-in-law because the mother-in-law hated her so much that she denounced her boy.

Our three hour class was rapidly coming to a close and we were only beginning to dismantle the bricks.  I asked the women to make a list of the expectations that they felt they had to live up to, expectations created by their husbands, their in-laws, their own parents.  Next to that list I wanted them to make a list of qualities about themselves that they wished everybody would and could value.

One thing that came up while they were writing was the extreme burden they felt from a young age to be a girl capable of being a good wife.  They knew that their parents had started saving from the moment they discovered they were going to have a girl for the dowry they would have to pay to get rid of them.  One gal told me that some girls, if they can't get a husband quickly enough, might even choose to die instead of facing the shame of being unwed or, worse yet, being returned by their husbands after the wedding day.

Chandana told me later that one of the gals had, in fact, gone home to her parents' house on the 8th day after her wedding, as is tradition.  However, the husband had failed to live up to his part of the ritual and failed to retrieve her a few days later.  Six years on, she was still waiting.

The gals started to get into their assignment and were now scribbling away.  I could tell that the lists of expectations they worried about were quite long.  By the time class ended, very few had even jotted down one thing they felt was special and unique and truly lovable about themselves.

I have no idea what will happen next week when we re-convene.  Will they have walled themselves up again?  Or will they let Chitra guide them through their inner locked doors?

Personally,  I find myself stuck on the outside of a fortress built by centuries of tradition where the birth of a daughter is cause for mourning and grief, where to be a daughter means a lifetime of servitude in someone else's house.  If you are worth anything at all it is 12 and a half rupee, or a little less than a buck and change.

These girls don't even daydream about romance, about finding a man who will think they are pretty.  They are convinced that a love marriage can only lead to heart ache and want nothing to do with one, and yet, they walk willingly into a life that affords them so little space to understand who they are that they won't allow themselves the luxury of articulating what is special about being themselves.

Like my nightly commute from the Antaranga School where I've begun to teach as well, I feel like I'm cycling in the dark, I haven't a clue where the potholes are.  There could be a dog sleeping in the middle of the lane ready to leap out and bite me.  After my accident last week, I find I'm wobbly and afraid of falling.  I want to forge ahead with the confidence I usually feel, but the darkness has taken on a solid and impenetrable feeling.

Conversely, Chandana and I have taken to talking about our lives for a few hours everyday and she confessed yesterday that she didn't feel like I really showed myself until after Barbara and Eva left, that I'd stood back, I'd kept myself reasonably confined.  I was sharing photos of my life back home and one came up of me dancing with The Paperboys and I said that is the absolute happiest that I feel back home.  She wondered if I was happy here, which stunned me, I thought I was an open book, an open book of happiness.

So, I looked up that Robert Frost poem from so long ago.  Turns out the first line isn't "Something there is that loves a wall," but rather, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."  Re-reading the poem from a different vantage point, 25 years later I see the glee Frost has for the forces of nature and man that subversively work to bring walls down, while other people stubbornly refuse to look beyond the walls.  I delight in my own inner elves that slave away year after year knocking at the pebbles and stones inside my heart and mind.  I also hope that any wall toppling energetic hooligans I leave behind in Santiniketan act more like gently rising waters, slipping under the stones and lovingly dispelling the boundaries, rather than hunters blasting indiscriminately through stone that isn't ready yet to crumble.


Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

1 comment:

auntiemao said...

What a fascinating entry on this day: International Womens Day, a day in which Egyptian men howled at the congregation of women who were celebrating.......xo.....