Doing Life Together and Counting the Small Miracles

Caminante, no hay camino (Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking)- Antonio Machada (Spanish poet 1875-1939).

This week, while I was taking one of our ladies home after the Stitching Change sewing class, on the way she shared with me some of her frustrations over her continued health problems and her worries about her young son not being able to find a job. I noticed that she was emotionally and mentally tired. I felt her pain and wished that I could fix all this brokenness and the poverty. Her stories took me back to the goodbye words a friend of mine gave to me as I was getting ready to come to the USA 15 years ago. She said, “I’m so jealous and happy for you that you’re going to Julia Roberts’s land.” We both laughed at what she said and I accepted it with gratefulness!
Like many young women, I was also very fascinated by the American way of life and I was envisioning the US to be a country where most people live like Julia Roberts, meaning everyone can afford to drive any fancy car they want to drive, live in a fancy house, go places without having to worry about money, and afford to wear trendy clothes. With this high assumption of wanting to experience paradise, I came not knowing what awaited me. During my first year, most of the things I encountered surprised me in good and bad ways. I was really surprised that I couldn’t find any tall buildings like I saw in the Hollywood movies back home. The tall buildings could be seen only from a distance, a place they told me was called downtown. I was also very surprised by the huge gap between the wealthy neighborhoods and the inner city neighborhoods. It was shocking for me to see many homeless people walking on the street. “Where is the Julia Roberts’s land?” I wondered then. Why was there so much poverty in one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world? That was very bizarre to me, and it still is, so I set out on a quest, wanting to understand more about the poverty in this rich country. When I got my first job offer to work with inner-city youth and their families, I jumped at the opportunity.

I first came to learn about life in the inner city in America while I was in India.  During my 8th grade year, I read a book called Run Baby Run: The Explosive True Story of a Savage Street Fighter Turned Crusader (December,1968) by Nicky Cruz.  What stood out to me from the book was the living situation of poor immigrant youth like Nicky Cruz, who was a native of Puerto Rico surviving in New York City.  Nicky Cruz was a gang leader, drug addict, alcoholic and hardened street criminal, but, during one of David Wilkerson’s crusades in New York City, he accepted Jesus Christ, left the gang, and even overcame his addictions. Nicky Cruz became a new, happy person. I thought it was just a fictional story, but I came to find out that poverty, violence, and drugs do exist in the inner-city of Kansas City, Kansas just like it exists in other places. However, that is not the whole story of people in the inner-city. I also learned that young and old, weak and strong, encouraged one another and tackled their life struggles together.  Time and again, I saw people taking care of one another, grandparents, parents and children working together to make a living like all of us do. There is no doubt that most of the families I worked with faced the above-mentioned challenges, but they worked together to meet those challenges. I have seen young people who encountered violence, even witnessing their friends being killed in a shooting, but they continued to strive on, not willing to give up.  For many of them, what the late Spanish poet Antonio Machada wrote is true: Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. In many of their life situations, there seems to be no way forward, but I have seen these ordinary young people make ways by simply believing and hoping in the goodness of life.  The beautiful thing about the way they live their lives is they never think to face life alone, they seek out friends, parents, grandparents and teachers, and even call out to the universe or God to help them. Maybe that is the reason why they are surviving life’s challenges without losing their souls.

Working with this community, I have come to experience what my parents have always taught me and my siblings: Life in this world exists by interdependence. We are all interrelated, and good things happen when we decide to do things with others. I had been to places where I would rather not go if I am alone, but, in solidarity with them, I had come to a much deeper level of relating to others and to the world. I had learned to listen to their stories without trying to fix their problems. I had learned to be honest with my own limitations and weaknesses. I had learned to practice compassion and empathy even in the hardest and darkest moments. I also learned that the most important thing in life is not how much wealth you can offer to each other but a simple human connection that emerges out of compassion for one another and the rest of the lives on this world.

Many of the women that I am working with in Stitching Change are my former students’ moms. I got to know them through their children, and I’m very fortunate to be able to continue this relationship. Now I am experiencing a different relationship dynamic with them. With their children, my main job was to provide them a safe and caring place where they could come and learn life skills. With these women, it is more about listening to their joys and struggles of how to keep their families together emotionally, spiritually and financially. Many of them have problems to take care of but I’m happy that at least they have created a time to step out of their homes and come to Stitching Change classes to be with a caring community and share laughter as well as their pain with the rest of the group. I know in my heart that every time they leave the class, they’re happier and more hopeful for their lives! Will these short moments of happiness and hope fix their worries about jobs and family sustenance? I don’t know, but it at least lessens their burdens. Sometimes, our life challenges seem overwhelming, but those challenges also call us to do the best we can and to hold on to each other so that our souls will be alive even in the midst of difficulties. Because we know that it is only by doing life together we can create a new path without losing our soul.

My quest for wanting to understand why many people are suffering in this rich country may never have a simple answer, but, by being with this community, I’m getting a glimpse of it. It may be that to find meaning in life it isn’t important to get the correct answer to our life matters but simply to live the question. And, if we are lucky, along the way we might, as poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Or we may simply let good things happen by counting the small miracles of each day.

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Grey Hair and the possibility of change

A friend of mine who is very opinionated one day told me, “Oh, my, you have lots of grey hairs, why are you not doing anything?” As if I could stop my grey hairs from coming out or hide them away. I was really surprised and I felt judged, awkward and upset in response to her thoughtless and exaggerated comments. I can still count my grey hairs :), but I didn’t tell her to shut up and mind her own business. In fact, some ugly and judmental thoughts went through my head silently. Thoughts like, “Why is she coloring her hair – to hide her age or to look young and sexy for what purpose?” As these thoughts went through my head, I felt very sad that somehow I was also judging her for her decision to color her hair. Who am I to think all those questions? As long as her decision to color her hair is making her happy, it’s her decision to make, though I worry about the health effects of hair dye for her and the water pollution they cause. These thoughts caught my attention and forced me to evaluate what I think of other women. This incident also taught me that in the world, where most women are still living according to society’s rules, and those rules seem mostly to be made by men, we women need to be kinder and more respectful to one another – whether we’ve decided to go grey or dye our hair black or pink, whether our faces are covered with wrinkles or we’ve chosen to have plastic surgery, whether we wear designer clothes or used clothes – because we all need support and cooperation rather then competition and tearing each other down!

To all my sisters, if your heart is beating and longing for a safer world for all women and girls, let us work together to create a world where we can also be part of the decision-making to create equality and a just world. Change in the system is not only possible but it is coming. As Arundhati Roy has said, on a quiet day, if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing. May that breathing grow louder and louder as we learn to support one another.

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Leaving My Beautiful Home Land

Last winter when I visited home with John, one of the first people we visited was a good friend of my father. I wanted to introduce John to him since my father is no longer there to meet John. As soon as he greeted us, he told me that I needed to apologize to my community for marrying a man outside of my community, and he was also upset that I didn’t get my church’s permission to marry John. I smiled and clarified that I received a blessing from my home church before I married JohnJ. There were many other elders who came and expressed the same anguish to me. I didn’t take their anguish in a harsh way; instead, I understood and felt their pain. I know they want me to be there, and they miss me as much I miss them, but life isn’t that simple for me. In this mystery of life, I don’t think any one of us has control over what our destiny will be. After returning to the US, I have been trying to make some sense of my thoughts and feelings about why I chose to leave my family, my community and my beautiful birthplace. Thinking of the elders who expressed their disappointment as well as my friends who have also married outside of our community and who are living in two worlds emotionally and psychologically, I decided to write this blog for the younger generation who are now setting out on their journeys to define their identity. Somehow we must all struggle together to find some meaning or answers in the way we do things. There are no easy answers, but at least we can try.

Leaving my Beautiful Home Land

I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in one of the most beautiful places in the world, my hometown called Hunphun (Ukhrul), which is in the State of Manipur in Northeast India near the border with Burma. In Hunphun, communal living is deeply rooted in our way of life.  My hometown is surrounded by beautiful majestic mountains and rivers and hills with a wide variety of wild flowers, fruits and trees. I have a deep spiritual and emotional connection to my people and the natural surroundings.  To me, they are the ancient ones who remind us that we are all interrelated and interdependent.  They were there long before our foreparents ever came into the land. I am truly in love with them. When I was growing up, there weren’t many automobiles and the population of Hunphun was much smaller. There were only a few public buses, trucks to bring in foods supplies, and army vehicles to be seen.  Just 2-3 miles from our main town, we could go into the forest. We walked everywhere. We walked to school, to gather firewood in the forest, to go to the paddy fields, and to fetch water.  One of my favorite memories of my childhood was walking to school every morning, rain or shine, and, on beautiful days, we could see the mountains, the hills, the rivers and the landscape of paddy fields as we walked.  Looking back now, it was such a rich blessing to be able to walk among those beautiful natural surroundings.  Life was simple then. In the daytime, we would go to school, and then, after school, we came home and helped our mothers with the household chores, did our homework, or played marbles or sutheira with our friends. My after-school chore was usually to go gather pig food and fetch water from the community pond with my younger sister, Asem. I used to hate doing my chores, but I didn’t have a choice. We had few material concerns as long as we had enough food to eat.  Of course, as children we wanted to have plastic toys and some nice clothes that our rich friends had, but that was a not big concern. I remember, I was happier when I went to the forest and river with my friends to collect firewood, wild fruits, flowers, snails and fishes.  However, there were also times that all the beautiful landscapes and our simple lives disappeared in the shadow of social and political corruption, drug, alcohol and AIDS problems, and the unending armed conflict.

So, in spite of the deep spiritual connection I have with my birthplace, my family and my friends, I was also eager to move away from all of the problems. I didn’t think I would have the courage to do it, though. To this day, I am not very sure what gave me the courage to leave my parents and my siblings, who I love dearly, and everything that I grew up with. I am a dreamer and I love exploring and doing innovating things, but I never dreamt that one day I would move to the opposite side of the world, away from my family.

When I was ten years old, I visited my aunts in Khangkhui village (2-3 hours away from my home). When the sun set, I cried and cried as if the world was coming to an end because I was missing my mother so much. That night, I promised myself that I would never stay away from my mother. Little did I realize that my future included not only staying away from my mother but moving away to the opposite side of the world. Of course, like many young girls influenced by Christianity and Western education, I dreamt of being independent and doing the things I like to do on my own schedule, such as owning my own home, driving my own car, going on vacation with my own money, having a good job, having my own bank account, and working to help people in need with my own money.  Yes, I was able to accomplish all of this, and I won’t say that I haven’t enjoyed having all this freedom, because sometimes I do. Having all these opportunities has also given me lots of choices about where I want to work and go and who I want to be with. My freedom of movement has given lots of independence! If I want to go places, I hop into my car and decide when I want to go and where, without really thinking about depending on others or worrying about what others will think of me.  After all, who wouldn’t want to move freely without having to think about whether there will be gunfire on the road, or whether I’m feminine enough, or my clothing style is good enough, or whether people would accept me without any judgment.

However, in my middle-age, I am beginning to realize that, maybe, life is more meaningful when you’re deeply connected to your community, friends and family, and share your talent, creativity and vision with them. As many researchers have said, all lives are interconnected and interdependent, and we don’t grow when we try to live life by ourselves, for ourselves.  I’m learning to establish my own community and family here in Kansas City, and I’m fortunate to have these wonderful people in my life as well as a husband who not only loves me but believes in me and wants to be part of the work that I do to serve people who are in need.  Some days, though, it is really hard not being able to see my mother, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, and my birth-community in my day-to-day activities. There are not many days that go by when I don’t think of home.

As young adults, many of us want to be free, especially from rules and laws. Sometimes, though, living that kind of freedom comes with a heavy price. Our dreams of being free do not always turn out to be rosy. One of the most painful things in my life, living so far away from home, was facing the reality that I couldn’t be there with my father during his last days on earth, when he was sick.  It was very painful for me that I couldn’t be there, in person, for my mother when her life-partner for almost 45 years passed away. The feeling was empty and at the same time didn’t seem real. Our elders used to advise us not to stay too far away from our loved ones because we might not be able to help out when one of them gets sick or dies.  I used to think how hard that must be. We live in a modern world where we can just catch a plane and fly home when our loved ones are not well, but it turns out that life is more complicated than that. It is damn hard for my soul to not be able to help out when my loved ones need help or just be there for them in times of joy or sorrow. I also deeply regret that I missed seeing most of my nieces and nephews born and have not been able to see them grow up in person. Being far away from my siblings, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-laws, and my 10 nieces and nephews, I sometimes imagine how my life would have been if we were all together.  I miss the times when I made tea with my sisters and my sister-in-law and simply shared stories at the fire place, and harvesting my mother’s potatoes from her farm in the summertime.  I miss the basic things that we did when we were together. Even our worst fights and arguments were bearable because those are a part of life that sustains and gives meaning as a family and make us human beings. I understand that life cannot be the same all the time, and it will not always be possible for us to stay under one roof. As the ancient saying goes, there is a time for everything, but my heart feels the pain most of the time that I am far away and only able to see them once every 2-3 years.

Despite all these struggles, I didn’t have the guts to return to my beautiful homeland. I left home with lots of dreams of what I would do for my community after I finished my education, but I wasn’t able to overcome my fear of the changes that had happened in me and in the people I love and the place I love so much while I was absent. Somehow, naively, I was hoping things would be the same when I finished my studies and returned home and I would be able to fit right back in. In 2009, when I returned home for a little over 2 months to visit and to start preparing to come back home emotionally, physiologically, psychologically and spiritually, my romantic notions about my birthplace’s landscape, my friends, and my community were totally over taken by reality. My good friends were all married and had children and were busy creating lives for their families. Even when we hung out, they would have to cut short our visit as they needed to go back home to be with their families, and I felt left out. I wanted to walk and go places, like I used to go when I was a young girl, but our roads were overtaken by the cars and trucks, and breathing was becoming difficult because of the pollution. People’s houses were overtaking the places where we used to gather wild fruits and flowers.  Something inside me died as I encountered all the changes that had happened while I was gone. I began feeling scared and lonely among my family and my beloved community and started to miss Kansas City Jazz and Blues music, the landscape, and the ever-abundant public libraries. Then I realized that it is not only my friends, family and our landscape that had changed but that I had changed, too. I learned that once you leave, it is hard to come back and reestablish your relationships and expect things to be the same, especially when you have evolved to be a different person.  You just accept the pain that you cannot have everything in life and live with it!