Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Hartenstein "Ramayana" The First Week Back in Taiwan

(Hartenstein returns to Taiwan to the little loving arms of his daughters. Here is their epic adventure over the last week. In this picture, we visit the "Flying Cow Ranch" to feed the sheep and milk some cows. Looks fun, huh?)

Also, did you really think I would go to India and not come back telling the story of the Ramayana, the oldest Indian epic poem every written? Didn’t think so either, gather around kiddos, this is one of my favorites.

(Hartenstein's little girls got to ride ponies too. Here Xi'an and Rebekah channel their inner cow-girl.)

The poem of The Ramayana begins very long ago in ancient India when the dreaded, villainous Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, is given immortality by Brahma and becomes an insufferalbe pain in the butt, harassing the people, cursing gods, you know... general ten-headed demon behavior.

(You can check this life goal off my kid's 100 Things To Do Before You Die list, as I showed them how to milk a cow. I know, we're awesome!)

Of course, to defeat the terrible Ravana, the Hindu god Vishnu is sent as mortal Rama, the eldest son of Raja Dashrath, to destroy the monster. Rama is straight, moral, and perfect in every way.

(The day after I returned from a month on the road in India and Nepal, we traveled north to Taiwan's coast to the city of Jifoung with the girls.)

Rama marries the beautiful Sita after winning her hand in a wrestling match. After which, Rama's father abdicates the throne, making way for Rama to become king.

(Jifoung is this cool little mountain beach town with these wonderful tea shops. One must climb up steps and sit in the tiny alleyway shops sipping marvelous tea and overlooking the ocean. Looks a little like our Oregon, don't you think?)

But owing to a promise the king made to another of his wives, Bharat is made king instead, and Rama, along with Sita and his brother Laxman, are banished to the jungle for fourteen years.

(Here are the steps leading up to Jifoung. A Korean television drama was filmed here and so it was a cool place for everyone to visit as well.)

Bharat, humbled, journeys to the deep forest to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya, the kingdom, but the noble man refuses, sincere to take his painful exile with honor. Bharat returns, and places Rama’s sandals on the throne instead. (How cool is that?)

(This is the craggy rock coast of northern Taiwan. It was good for me to come here and stand and look out over the ocean and think about home after being so long on the road.)

In the jungle, Ramam, Sita, and Laxman settle in small hut beside the river Jamuna until one day, the encounter the demon Ravan’s evil sister, Suparnakha, who naturally falls in love with Rama because of his charm and beauty, who wouldn't right?

(Here Hartenstein gets some much needed time with his beautiful daughters. We stroll, feel some wind in our face, some barefoot soggy grass between our toes, and watch the fishing ships as we dream about heading over the ocean home.)

After she is rejected, Suparnakha attacks and Rama slices her nose, ears, and breasts clean off.

(The Hartenstein girls are doing just fine. Kinu is 2 1/2, Xi'an is about to turn 6, and Rebekah turns 4.)

Enraged that his sister has been abused, Ravana sends an army of demons to attack, then lures Rama and Laxman away from the hut in the guise of a deer and returns to Sita dressed as a sadhu, begging for food, and bent on secret revenge.

(After Jifoung, we visited Keelung just outside of Taipei and stayed the night, visiting the Keelung Temple. Very cool. Keelung is a port city and ships were constantly arriving and departing in the harbor.)

When Sita, who is noble and kind, comes out to give the disguised Ravana food, she is kidnapped and taken to Lanka.

(The Keelung night market is famous for its seafood and cool atmosphere, and believe me, it didn't disappoint. It was fun to sit around late in the night and sample food with the girls, do some people watching, and just relax, drifting away in the crowd.)

To rescue the beautiful Sita, (and this is my favorite part) Rama enlists the help of Hanuman, the leader of an army of flying monkeys. (Yes, I said freaking flying monkeys!) They attack Lanka.

(In Keelung we visit a temple and ride some go-carts in the hot sun. Here, Hartenstein teaches his girls how to ring the big Buddhist bell, and really, who doesn't want to ring the bell, come on?)

The flying monkeys help Rama build a bridge of stones across the ocean and a fierce battle ensues. Both brave Rama and Laxman suffer injuries on their way to defeating the menacing demons.

(Back in Taichung, Hartenstein finds yet another panda kite to fly on blustery days. It rains our first weekend, but we brave the chills and head out singing songs from, what else, Mary Poppins. I love my life.)

In a final battle, Rama defeats Ravana and returns to Ayodhya to find the houses illuminated with oil lamps in his honor. He is reunited with Sita, all is well, and the story of their love becomes legend.

(Rebekah gets a turn flying the kite. It was so nice just to stand in the grass with my daughters, I couldn't have missed them more, their little fingers and toes, their little teeth inside little grins. Sometimes I think I am the luckiest person alive.)

The celebration of Ravana's death and the triumphant return to Ayodhya by Rama, the king, is celebrated in the Diwali, the festival of lights. Little children in India are now taught, "Be like Rama. Be like Sita." How sweet is that?
(Xi'an, not to be outdone, performs later that day in her school's annual speech contest. It will be the subject of a later blog. We practiced for weeks over skype while I was on the road. I was so proud of her for getting up there and singing too. By the way, she placed first this round and moves on to the citywide championship in two weeks. Fingers crossed.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Leaving for Home

(Hey Readers, check out the last of the Flickr pics to the right. Enjoy!)
Well... finally got my bindhi as I was leaving, a wild looking sadhu came up to me on the street, blessed me, and dropped some red flower paint on my forehead. Thanks, dude. Catch you later. Best thing about heading home...? India and Nepal... check. Hot showers, actual sushi, flying panda kite with my girls, first day stepping into the classroom singing, not sleeping in dirty clothes, sleeping on the floor next to my girls instead after awesome storytimes, not having to pay ten dollars to use the internet for an hour, going for long jogs, and... well, you guessed it: Chinese subtitles on my movies. Egads! This again. Ha!

Saturday, April 24, 2010


The trail nears an end, but the desire to move my feet lingers on. As my days in Nepal come to a close, an overwhelming feeling of relief and joy sweeps over me. I’ve had yet another adventure, a new set of stories just like a new set of wrinkles on my face. I have become older and wiser. There is no denying it, but with each day my heart and mind grow deeper in love and appreciation for the world around me.
(Kathmandu’s Vishnumati River)
Traveling to India and Nepal was wonderful. I saw things that I’d never thought possible, but mostly it confirmed my faith that my life must be devoted to helping people transform their lives into their dreams. I don’t care if that sounds corny, because it means so much to me. In Nepal, I saw mountains littered with trash. I saw people downcast and dying. I saw rivers destroyed. I saw cities crumbling in dust and darkness. I saw the souls of people crying out in despair. But I also saw such great wonder, joy, and possibility. I will carry that in my heart. It is stronger than the sadness that once lived there.
(Wandering woman at Pashupatinath)
I am going to return to Taiwan now, back to this little island. I am going to go to great restaurants and hang out with artists and run around in the night looking for adventure. I am going to love my daughters even more than I did, if that is possible, and I am going to throw myself back into the classroom with a vengeance. I feel a great weight has been lifted off me. I’ve seen what I needed to see. I buried what I needed to bury. This last year of hardships is over. I’m ready for what is next.
(Beggars and Freaks along Bodhnath.)
I spent much time in India and Nepal talking to the lowly, the outcasts of society. I watched you and listened. You had much to teach me and say. You made me re-think why I am alive and how I treat people and what is important. I don’t know if I can ever match your joy, your freedom, your simplicity, but I will try.
(Tech Savvy Monk at Swayambhunath)
To my lovely Buddhist monks, you also taught me much, through touring your temples and sketching your art, pouring through your books and asking the questions I have always wanted to know. I feel your peace and hope to always carry it with me. But you have made my faith only stronger, more determined. And so as religious people, I thank you for your devotion to a belief I cannot share but inspires me instead to stand by my own.
(Kathmandu Maoist Political Parade, heat 100 +)
While walking about ten miles through the sweltering city to find the main post office (what was I thinking, sending letters to people who probably just go, “Oh Hartenstein again,” and throw them in a forgotten box). I joined a Maoist Communist Party Parade. My brother Grant will be so happy. I know I will always do this. I will be 70 years old and still acting like a crazy man. I have wanderlust in my heart and always will. Come walk the road with me friends, I know the way and so do you. Come, let’s walk it together.
(Monks spinning prayer wheels at Swayambhunath)
I leave you with a prayer:
To my enemies and those to whom we fueled one another with hate, I hold no more ill will to you. I pray for your happiness and that we may meet on the road someday as friends. To ex-loves, thank you for all you have taught me, form your humor and goodness. Fill yourself with joy. I live with you in my memory, forever. To my family, I can’t wait to see you again. What good things we have ahead to share together. To my friends, I miss you so terribly and still trust you with my life. To my daughters, you are my soul. I devote, as always, my life to you. Finally to colleagues and future educators, I pledge myself to the work which we do, to stand shoulder to shoulder beside you, and never flinch again. Amen.

Friday, April 23, 2010


The verb “cleave” is the only English word with two synonyms which are antonyms of each other: adhere and separate. Thus, “cleave” can mean the opposite of itself. This poem was composed while strolling Durbar Sq. Market at dawn.

If our synonyms are all antonyms
And none of our homonyms sound the same
If our syntax finds itself all screwed up
And our punctuation is for shame
No worries, because…
I still cleave to you, if you still cleave to me
Like sticky berry syrup or sap from a rubber-plant tree
And if one day we get mighty carved up like a Thanksgiving Turkey
At least we’ll be still yummy and warm in somebody’s happy tummy
If our modifiers only dangle, and our infinitives stay sadly split
And our cranky verbs become irregular and our grunts monosyllabic
If we use our articles sparingly without the indefinite
And we describe ourselves in only stale subjects without a predicate
Oh please, never fear because…
I will cleave to you, if you will cleave to me
We’ll follow two halves of treasure maps to the buried pirate’s booty
Walk the plank, oh do not dread, I’ll follow just out of necessity
We’ll build a row boat out of logs that float and sail away safely to sea
If we discover it’s not irony to say with hyperbole
That our gerunds seem no more to end with I, N, or G
And we agree it’s no metaphor that we both abhor
This grammaclysmic jocund company
Oh drat, that’s too bad, because…
I’ll stop cleaving to you, if you stop cleaving to me
We’ll not hold fast to each other’s ship’s mast for all around to see
And if we split, well that’s okay, it’s how it’s supposed to be
Cause I stop defining you and you stop defining me despite that stupid dictionary.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Descent into Madness

Lately I’ve been praying a great deal while in India and thinking about God. I was raised in a Christian home never missing a Sunday of church, and I keep a faith to this day. Most Christians though are confused by my relationship with Christ. They try to adapt their understanding of this peaceful savior and cannot reconcile how I, like Jacob, must wrestle with an occasional angel or demon.
The most common Bible verse is possibly the most famous quote in the history of time. “For God so loved the world…” This is from, of course, John 3:16. You see it on signs at basketball games and rock concerts usually held up by some madman in a rainbow wig or written in whiteout under the eyes of a brain-bashing football bruiser as they try to tear one another’s face off. It's confusing.
But the beauty of that verse is so profound. “God loved the world.” He made it. It was his child. He designed and created it. I was shocked the other day when a friend who is in college now was telling me about how she’s been struggling with this idea that the universe is ever expanding. “But into what?” Is her question. So she asked her astronomy professor what was before the Big Bang, and this man sputtered in circles and guffawed and eventually said, “Just ask God.”
What an amazing statement from a brilliant man, the utter unknowing of God’s mysterious creation for humankind is just totally baffling. Why? Why are we here? Why did God even bother? And from what were we made?
This has also been my life’s question, seeking an answer to this. Is there a way for us to understand God? Are there signs around us? Here I am walking around India and Nepal and everything I see are signs of a lack of a real divinity. Oh sure, there are Hindus and Jains and Sikhs and Muslims and Buddhists and wise men and holy men and sacred sites and magical rivers, but where is the real practice of the big ideas of God. Where is compassion? Cleanliness? Thoughtfulness? Harmony? And love? Where is love?
Rather, I see chaotic behavior, ruinous social problems, disattachment to the environment, and then one attempts to ponder the inhumanity, the absolute cruelty of the caste system and the untouchables. It is impossible, just impossible to try and comprehend. I’ve long thought that God gives us signs of his existence everywhere. The stunning beauty of raw nature, the ability of the human heart to grasp one another in affection, the delights of senses, God reaches out to us every second of our lives. I know this. I know it. But how many of us see it?
For me, there is no better place for this personal connection to God’s love than in his word, the Bible, to read and attempt to comprehend the Bible.
In John 3:16 we see that “God so loved the world,” that what did he do? How could he love us more? He couldn’t, right? What could he possibly do to evolve us into understnading that the beginning of the world was love? Well… “He gave us his only begotten son.” God gave us his son. It was all he had left. And this son was given to die, the most painful thing in the world, so that we might understand his love even more, and that a greater love might enter the world. How profound is that?
Once I was in a relationship with someone very dear to me. It was the only time in my life that I loved someone this much. I had no idea where these feelings came from or that something like this could come out of me. It was an absolute overpowering and overwhelming madness. I saw her everywhere. I spoke to her all day in my mind. I just lived my love for her. Yes, I had loved before. I’d known many woman, but this was completely different. I had been closed off for years and she came into my life and brought me out of it. She saved me. But then one day she explained that she had fallen out of love with me, and it was just gone. Like that, poof.
Of course, my feelings hadn’t changed, but certainly her feelings had. So what do I do? How do I go on as if nothing is wrong? I could barely get out of bed. I couldn’t get through the day. I was in a free-fall. I beat my head against rocks. I wandered through nights wanting to hurt so bad that I could descend so deep into this continued madness that I destroyed myself because I couldn’t physically get out. I wanted to die.
It was then that I started to think about God’s understanding of love. How he shows us a glimpse. He gives us this world that is so good and beautiful and sacred and we fall so deeply in love with it and wonder and ponder what comes next, and then he kills it. He takes it from us. Why? So that somehow, we can move to a greater love, a greater appreciation. We can sit and think and do nothing but ponder until it comes back, until we are ready to accept it again, until we are able to fully live in love and be so much more grateful for it.
This is what existed before the Big Bang. This love. This overwhelming driving force in the universe. God’s love. That is it. Love is the answer. It is the only thing that matters. Our love for one another, our love for this earth, our love of knowledge and truth, our love for compassion and taking care of one another, and if you are lucky enough to find that with another person than you are blessed, and if you feel that about yourself than you are healed, but if you accept it from God, from the source, then you know the answer to the universe and you are saved. I know this not because I read it in a book or got gold stars for attendance at Sunday school. Not because I have navigated the little ebbs and flows of life but because I have lived hell. I have seen hell, and I am clawing and scratching my way out of darkness into the light to find this love again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Line Breaks in Poetry

My father never taught
How to change the oil in cars.
It’s something I fudge about now.
Sounds manly, getting down in the dirt on my back
Under an oil plate, a wrench in one hand.
It’s too late for him to show me now.
My mother was a wonder
To carve little bird foot paths
Into the crusts of her holiday pies.
Kept a dish of sweets in the pantry.
It is her voice I have when I sing
In my classrooms and each night at story time
Our line is strong. Her mother Melva wrote
At a metal kitchen table in the little cottage by the lake.
On her window sill were glass figurines
Cinderella shoe, Liberty Bell, blue eye’d squirrel with nut, Eiffel Tower.
When she moved to the retirement home we put them all in boxes
Now lost
I was the last grandchild to see her curled up in the hospital bed like a small porcelain snail
At her end, we had no resemblance, until now.
My daughters will grow to take lovers,
Hold hands in yellow and purple fields,
Stop the car to take pictures beside
The wooden Indian
With boys
I will never know.
I will telephone them at school and they will lie
And slip further away
Because they love me and I must let them go,
Because that is the way,
Because nothing lasts forever.

I walk in the night because I can no longer sleep
I hold onto moments
With a pen in my hand
Scribbling verse for nothing and no one.
The black ink flows out like a giant line from my page
Into an ominous night I'll never soar
Toward a horizon I'll never cross.
Stay night, you’re my lover now, hold.
Never end
Ever end
My reverence for thee.
But she’s fickle, let’s the sun in the back door every time,
Telling me everything, breaking my heart again and again without remorse.
I arrive in Kathmandu lonely, hurting, and isolated from everything around me. The city is full of chaos and commotion, tourists pointing and beggars and drug dealers and honking motorcycles and market stalls and dusty roads and an endless maze of streets. At the airport a deaf mute grunts and leads me to a taxi. I put a bill in his hand later I discover is worth .0001 of a penny. We begin driving in this old jalopy down streets. It is the same as India. Bridges over dead rivers littered with trash. Dirt roads with oxen and aimless youth. One story brick houses waiting to collapse. Down an alley a motor cycle comes straight toward us and hits the car ahead. The driver tumbles over the handlebars and lands in a heap. We must stop and check. Our driver gets out. I get out. There is blood and I am trying to get out of the way for others to help. A girl in the market spots me, without notice she approaches and kisses me right on the mouth and then leaves. I am dazed and disgusted.
An hour later I am dropped off in the center of the backpacker paradise of Thamel, leaping into doorways just to catch my breath. Immediately I don’t want to be here, but I am stuck for the next three days and I go back to my cheap hotel room and sit on the floor next to the bed and hide. That night there is no electricity, only candles in store windows causing shadows in the headlights of motorbikes revealing swinging arms and kicking legs of the other people around me on the roads. I walk all night to Durbar Square, climb a stuppa high above the traffic through the heart of the old city. I sit in the dark surging light. I take pictures no one will ever see. I write letters never meaning to send. I scribble poetry I plan to burn. I watch the people stave off the night like me, all of us in Kathmandu taking part in the end of the world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Leaving India for Nepal

After an amazing couple of weeks trekking through India stretching from the markets of Delhi to the high altitude of the Himalays in Ladakh to the beauty of Agra and the Taj Mahal to the amazing holy city of Varanasi, the tea plantations of Darjeeling, and the slums of Calcutta, Hartenstein heads north to Nepal by plane. Kathmandu, here I come.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Only Book I've Ever Burned

“I wandered lonely as a cloud.” The Daffodils, by William Wordsworth

Calcutta officially changed its name to Kolkata in 2001 to reflect many of the physical and emotional changes the city had gone through since India claimed independence in 1947. Bombay came earlier, changing its name to Mumbai in 1996. This was all explained to me by the man I hired to show me around the city on the Sunday after sleeping outside. He talked very quickly while sweating and taking enormous and deadly drags from a rapid fire succession of thin yellow cigarettes. But I learned a great deal about the city and saw many places. “He kept saying between breathy drags, “Change is good, yes?” But I just looked at the water and let him talk on.
Kolkata was marvelous that day. I mean, a change can do a lot of psychological good, can’t it? My guide took me to all the “New” places in the city that were untouched by the untouchables. Men played cricket in lush parks. The quaint “old” cable car came rumbling by with people waving. There were horse carriages and tours of historic British buildings in all their late 19th century architecture. But the whole time I kept thinking, Kolkata is Calcutta, no matter how you dress it up. Asking if change is good or bad is irrelevant; because the change occurs for some, while others continue on forever in the past.
Later that night I did something I had been trying to do for some time. In fact, I think I brought this thing with me for the very hope that I would have the strength to do it. When I got back to the youth center, I took something from my bag I had been carrying. It was a book of poems I’ve been sort of keeping as a journal over the last year, just writing on the pages and tucking it away. I walked with the book down to the Ganges where there was a ceremony of the dead and watched a while until all the colorful mourners went away. It was dark and I climbed down the Ghat steps to the river and sat for a while listening to the waves lap up against the shore.
Then I lit a match and opened the journal and read all my thoughts over this last difficult year by dim candle light. Deep. Dark. Painful. Joyous. Revealing. Hurtful. Rapturous. Troubling. Doubting. Everything. There were secret poems and letters never sent. Just my heart poured out onto the page, just the way I was taught, the way I have asked students to do for years. It was writing I had hoped to share someday, maybe. But something made me do it, almost as if the journal itself was telling me to let it go.
I didn’t want to.
I wanted to keep it forever. It was like having a best friend that was always there for you. Would listen to anything you say, and believe me, I said it. I tore myself into that thing, and that journal fought back too. It had style. Personality. Sketches and drawings and keepsakes taped to pages. I was in love with it.
So, when I lit it on fire, all I could do was sit back and watch it burn. Even though I felt like I still needed it, maybe I didn’t. It certainly didn’t need me filling up its pages with all my confessions and fears and problems and worries. That journal must have been glad to be set free, but watching it go up in flames was almost as painful as pouring out my soul into it.
When I was a kid one of my favorite poems was Wordsworth’s Daffodils. I’ve written about that poem’s impact on me many times on this blog, but I’ve never really said why. You see, I’m not who I say I am. In fact I am a total imposter. I’ve tried to promote myself as someone who is footloose and carefree, a vagabond bound to nothing. But the truth is, there are certain things I just want to hold forever. It is not because I want something sick or self-gratifying from them, or that I’m not strong enough to go it alone. It’s just that they are so beautiful to me that I want to hold them closer than anything else, like I would forsake the world just to keep them for me. I’m so afraid they will leave and not be a part of my life, the most important part of my life, and somehow when they are gone, they’ll give their best to someone else.
I know, Brian. I know. I whisper to myself as my burning journal of poems floats out onto the waves. The memories here are just wandering clouds. They are for everyone to enjoy, to lay in the grass and make their own shapes, that’s why God made them, and besides, who can hold a cloud anyway, you fool. But it’s what I want. Don’t I get a say in it?
I think this as the last of the hard bound pages, now turned ashen, sank into the dark river. Gone forever. Sometimes I want the past to stay alive more than I want myself to go on, and I will always feel this way.

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.