Thursday, April 15, 2010

Awoke on Shakespeare Sarani

I was crazy. I was wild. I have seen the tiger smile. I spit in a bamboo viper’s face, and I’d be dead but by God’s grace. Drive on…It don’t mean nothing. My children love me but they don’t understand, and I got a woman who knows her man. Drive on…It don’t mean nothing. It don’t mean nothing. It don’t mean nothing. Drive on. - Johnny Cash

Icarus with his wings made of honeybee wax knew it. Phaeton also, when he took the reins of his father’s golden steeds of flame, soon found out. Even brave Odysseus, weeping on the isle of Thrinacia after his men had eaten the cattle of the sun god Helios, discovered. No man can beat the sun. And so the rays found me. It was early, as Homer says, “Dawn with her fingertips of rose…” Men scratched whiskered jaws and stretched. Women rinsed cups in brown puddles. Pantless boys scurried in packs pissing on one another and laughing. My back ached as I sat up. I had spent the night under a bridge in a doorway with the cold street beneath me and a thousand sounds in my head. I had been terrified. Broken. More beaten than I can remember being. Exhausted in both mind and body, and elated to be alive.
Here’s the truth. It’s amazing that a guy like me can be covered in filth and grime but yet be so full of sublime thoughts. (Also, it’s even funnier that you can spend a night on the street wallowing in yuck, but if you get on your feet and start walking, no one can really tell where you slept.) I just rose and walked out of there chuckling to myself, I did it. I made it. I survived. And believe me, thank God I was able to. But more than anything, I was just so grateful for life. I was overwhelmed with the experience of sleeping on Calcutta’s streets. I was in need of a shower. I was in need of ten showers. Okay, let’s face it, I was in need of a Meryl Streep in Silkwood hazmat shower, but on the inside I was finally clean.
I’m not going to get too philosophic about it, those thoughts and promises are only for me, but I want to describe a little of the event that happened after I started walking out of Mother Teresa’s slums. I climbed out of the filth and crossed the bridge over the river Ganges and moved up the train tracks to the parks in front of the monuments to Indira Ghandi and buildings in memory of Queen Victoria. I passed by the street sweepers and food vendors just opening their carts. Horses grazed in the wide open parks, and children rose to sit and ponder the day.
Sometimes India can be just so stunningly beautiful. Everywhere you look there is something to move your spirit or break your heart, but mostly it frames a picture in your mind of what you have to be grateful for. How thoughtfulness and compassion are the best characteristics a person can have. Americans live in a tough world. It’s “what have you done for me lately,” and “If you can’t do it, we’ll get someone in here that can.” It’s brutal. But it’s like I tell my daughters when they get grumpy that I’ve not given them the pink Hello Kitty cup, “You’re the richest person in the world. You have nothing to complain about, ever, okay?”
They nod yes, “Okay, Daddy.” But next time I will show them. I will bring them here and let them see. It will be such a wonderful gift to them because that’s the beauty of this place. Not the pictures or the people, but the realizations that come with traveling here.
As you can tell, I was sort of bursting as I scampered out of there, a little spring in my step, and being a literature teacher all these years I really couldn’t help it. I stumbled upon old Theater Street, which has now been re-named Shakespeare Sarani. I had written a map there with a sharpie on my chest and just followed it. I know. I’m nuts. You don’t have to tell me. I can feel you shaking your head. Yet if you know anything about me at all, you know I couldn’t resist reciting poetry aloud, and so I stopped on the corner and to the beggars and street merchants, to the half-asleep rickshaw drivers and parked cabbies, to the hungover drug addicts and petty thieves crumpled over on the bricks, I howled Shakespeare’s sonnet 118. I just screamed it at the top of my lungs. Then I encored with sonnet 54, just because I could.
It felt so good. I mean, so crazy good to do it.
And why? Because amidst all that disgust and neglect, just like India herself, just like in the heart of every person I know, there will always be beauty.
I continued down the street glowing and happy, made it back to my bus station and hit a youth center where, unbelievably there were showers and a little internet station. I called the people in the world I love most, then of course, I called home. It was Easter Sunday in Colton and everybody was there to skype. How good is that? My brother Grant just shaking his head and sister Lisa looking at me like I’d finally lost my marbles, and me grinning like a loony tune.
In the end, I don’t know what experience means. I don’t know if that is what makes us rich or if it’s the love and compassion we show people when we empathize, or if it’s when we give our lives to service in a million different ways. I really don’t know. I just know that my life means nothing without the belief in the grace of God. I have been blessed with such fortune. I have children. I have poetry. I have had a lifetime in the classroom learning and seeing and knowing. I have had a hundred lifetimes outside of class in which the memory will sustain me forever. I am rich. Rich! And so are you.

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