Monday, November 23, 2009

America Present

I think it was fall that woke me up. I love fall. It's my favorite season. It's kind of... spicy and magical. Since my return from India a week ago, I've felt like a ghost, or rather a slightly younger Ebenezer Scrooge being herded from place to place by the Ghost of America Present. This is my third re-entry in the last year and a half, but the triple whammy of jet lag, reverse culture shock, and Stockholm Syndrome hit me several times harder this go 'round. Hard to say why, but the last week found me drifting through the Berkeley hills in an exhaustion-induced stupor, feeling like my psychic insides were stranded somewhere over the Pacific, and the rest of me in utter revolt against my own culture.

Apart from those precious moments nuzzling my nephew and giggling through sun salutations with my neice, I just couldn't quite seem to get back in my body, until the air, crisper than a pressed shirt, and the blazing foliage reeled in that old astral cord. It was tenuous at first, and I felt nervous about boarding yet another flight to head back to the east coast, but here I really am, and feeling more in my bones every day.

I was happy to observe (upon arriving in my body) that I don't appear too much the worse for wear, apart from a few missing pounds and a persistent tendency to do head counts before getting into any motorized vehicle. Indeed, the worst damage I've sustained occured a couple of days ago when, during a 5am yoga practice (jet lag, you are a cruel mistress), I attempted an arm balance before my poor body had time to wake up, and landed squarely on my face with the full weight of my body behind it. Though I'm now getting wierd pains in my left temple, the face plant doesn't seem to have done any lasting harm (or, unfortunately, good), and I am undaunted in my quest to master yoga like someone with arms of normal length.

My recollections of the semester have already begun to sweeten and sift out the less-than-savory moments. I've finally managed to pin down some of that elusive gratitude for the lessons of the last three months, and the students who brought them to my doorstep- beautiful little pissers, all, and well on their way, I think, to a better way of being. Or maybe I should just speak for myself. It will probably be a few years before I figure out why the last year and a half of my life felt like something I absolutely had to do, and no time at all to be sure that I'm done.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Break-Up

They say it takes twice as long to get over a relationship as the time you actually spent in it. This one may take a bit longer.

I had almost a day of “free travel” before the next wave of chaos hit. I had just spent the previous four hours at our first “Art of Living” workshop, doing breathing exercises that made my body temperature plummet and my neck muscles spasm, when I learned that one of the aspiring camel trekkers was stricken with severe flu-like symptoms, and would be staying back with me in Udaipur. The days that followed were a blur of hospital trips, swine flu research, and frantic money wire transfers to cover our escalating medical costs. The gods of good health were once more turning their impervious backs on our beleaguered community, this time including my co-leader Francis in their stricken number. In fact, as I write this from my haze of jet lag and administrative catch up here at our home base in California, Francis is swaddled in his sleeping bag up the hill, still fighting this mystery plague. 104 degree fevers, aches, chills, and cough- as the doctor said, if it’s not swine flu, it looks a whole lot like it.

The train ride back to Delhi was swift and merciful. All I wanted to do was get these people on a plane to somewhere where they can drink from the faucets and swallow a mouthful of water in the shower without losing half their bodyweight in gastro-distress.

The following three days back in Majnu ka Tilla passed in a blur of last minute errands and paperwork. The Tibetan Quarter in Delhi is a warren of dark, narrow alleyways, bordered by the now placid Yamuna on one side, and a busy roadway on the other. There’s really nowhere to go but up to the rooftops, where smog blurs the profiles of Delhi’s crumbling suburbs. Last year, I made a twice daily pilgrimage to the roof terrace for yoga and to drink in my last eyefuls of India. This time, with Francis feverishly enshrouded in his sleeping bag and much to be done, I only made one ascent in three days, just hours before we left for the airport. I sat on a small slab of cardboard and watched the sun settle into the urban horizon. I didn’t feel any of the customary sentimental wistfulness at these last sights and smells. I was tired, and ready to go home. I know I’ll go back to India, though the journey will be entirely my own. After three excruciating hours trying to herd the group through money changing, bag check and baffling security snags (An empty box of matches? A coconut?) at Delhi airport, India finally faded away below the clouds.

Later, in Berkeley
I look back at my entry from Hong Kong airport in September, surveying my newly minted student-explorers as they drifted amongst the duty-free shops, tentatively hopeful and optimistic. That’s when I began creating the story that this semester would be the culmination of all of my hard won lessons, and the peak of my career as an intrepid experiential educator.

Sitting here now, benumbed with jet lag and rocked from the inside out by the events of the last few days, I can let go of the need to believe that this semester would be easier, and that I would make it through unscathed by heartbreaking inconsistencies. It’s taken me a while to get to this last entry, and I’m probably still not quite ready to be writing it, though I’m hoping that in doing so I might put this all behind me. To be brief, the program I am working for seeks to foster integrity and responsibility in young adults, and has very clear guidelines prohibiting the use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs during the semester. We check in with the students periodically throughout our time together to make sure they are in alignment with these agreements, offering support to those who may be struggling with old patterns and new temptations.

Over the last three days, it was revealed that nine of my thirteen students had broken one or more of these agreements at least once during our ten weeks in India, and eight were sent home for drug and alcohol use. The facility with which they lied to Francis and I throughout the semester chills me still, and the knowledge that these lies traveled with us for ten weeks breaks my heart. The students were repentant and remorseful, and I couldn’t deny them my forgiveness or reassurance. My care for them had been too hard won, and if I can’t still believe in them, then the exhaustion I feel now would be meaningless. It will take me a while to figure out how I could have given so much of myself, and felt so much more grounded in experience, with such baffling results. I’m hoping that there will be an uplifting epilogue to this story, and that in the quieter days to come I will discover some perfection in the course of events, and gratitude for things, and people, being exactly as they are.