Monday, February 27, 2012

Indian Love Story Day 46: The Glassblower's Breath.

I have been feeling a bit over-exposed. Like a photograph left to long in the sun. Like 
Mr. Baggins I feel thin. "Sort of stretched, like... butter scraped over too much bread." But yet there are things I feel I must say. To make sense of the last few weeks, to make amends, to try and muddle on.

I am no longer in India. The reasons I left are....well they are the tangled and tender frayed ends of best intentions and failures. I am in Haiti again, as of Wednesday. A two month gig with Samaritan's Purse. Of course my heart is still in India. With those 34 girls whose uncle misses them like a lost limb. I find myself conjuring their pouty voices and faces pained with mock embarrassment begging me to cut my hair. Their little threats to sneak into my room at night and do the devilish deed. My promises of retribution never failed to elicit giggles but were inept in conquering their resolve. I still have my hair but God only knows what I left behind.

The truth is I know they will be fine. They will be better than fine surrounded by so many who love them so dearly. And they will have their new home soon enough. The construction goes on at an ever steady pace and the story of the girl's day to day life is beautifully told here. So I hope you will keep falling in love with them, keep cheering them on. They are the future of India. They are the healing hands that will restore gentleness where there has been so much hardness and pain. To all of my friends and family and those at Ekklesia Hattiesburg that gave so generously to this project, may God in His mercy give you much more seed to sow. Thank you again from the very depths of my heart.

There is a line from one of Rumi's poems that has stayed with me this week:

"Break the glass and fall toward the Glassblower's breath." 

Such an incredible image of the free-fall of Grace and I know that is what I need more than anything right now. To free-fall into Him. To not just be over-exposed, not just be spread too thin, but be completely and utterly transparent before God. To give in, to give up...guns in the ground, white flag raised, unconditional....surrender. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All That's Gold Doesn't Glitter.

Coming into Delhi you notice the billboards first. In the finest of retail traditions they offer popularity, acceptance, community, even lifelong vitality for purchase. As with other Indian cities, there are an inordinate amount of these megalithic advertisements selling the perfect wedding. But this trip I noticed at least half of the signs were security firms, life insurance agents, or investment brokers selling the future. A light skinned and symmetrically perfect spokeswoman confesses that her future is secure, not tied to the fickle nature of gold investments. Her obvious genetic clone on the building opposite begs to differ and offers gold as the smart buy with low transaction fees. Still another of her perfect sisters offers strength through diversity, while yet another self-praises her company's singularity of vision standing in front of a stack of gleaming gold bullion.  

Behind these signs are the crumbling facades of concrete buildings and beneath them the lifeblood of India, her working poor. They have traveled from well before dawn to sell their vegetables, their spices, their wreaths of fresh cut flowers. If they ever look up...I watch and noone ever looks up....they do not see the signs as advertisements, they see only a jury of their betters, the oligarchy of the leisure class. 

I woke up in my $30 hotel in Mahipalpur, Delhi with the exact impression that my fingers were in just sprung fissures in that Dutch dam of young Hans Brinker. I had shivered and sweat through two shirts and deep into my sheets with what? Malaria would have made more sense. The city bleated all night. Rusting bustling beasts of burden sounding off in such shrill desperation as if to the slaughter. Whether the dam metaphor was a function of my fever or the other way round, the sense of futility of the last few days clung to everything. I changed my shirt again. Another crack. Another drip drip drip. 

Dial 9 for the front desk. Free breakfast 6-10. 4 pieces of toast and English-ish tea. Try to sort out the last three days.

We found Kanchan in the middle of the road. The dim yellow of the motorcycle headlight caught a piece of fabric in a horrifyingly familiar shape and we screamed stop! I was on my knees, sure to find a corpse, gently resting the weight of my hand where a shoulder should be. A groan and movement and I scooped blanket, body and hope in one quick motion and hurried to a flat spot behind a wall. I pulled the blanket back a bit to reveal a woman, child-sized and skeletal.

Abraham spoke to her in Oriya but she was disoriented. I comforted her face with my hand, inspected her blanket with my cell phone light. So much matted filth told her time on the streets had been both long and hard. She shifted to settle in for a night's sleep when her blanket fell back from her face leaving the top of her head exposed for the first time. The entire back of her scalp was missing. Six inches of hair and skin gone in a perfectly horrible circle. Flies covered the swollen fester where leaves and dirt didn't. 'Oh God' was all I could muster. I finally spoke. Begged Abraham to hail a cab. I scooped up 55 pounds of tragedy again and carefully sat in the back seat with her cradled in my arms resting across my lap.  

The cab followed Abraham and Narges to the hospital, some 1/2 mile away. The driver, immune to the gravity of the situation through ignorance or callousness made small talk. Where was I from? Why was I here? Was I a Christian? I mumbled the answers between prayers. Again only- 'Oh God'.

There is no ER at the Rayagada public hospital, only a glorified reception area with one bed, a desk, and a doctor in whose hands all patient's fates rest. I laid Kanchan on the bed and stroked her face and arm as we waited for Abraham to speak to the doctor. After much conversation we were able to ascertain several important and troubling facts. First, they would not treat her. The wound was old, maybe 2 months. She had been admitted then and even once since then, but with no one to watch her she had run away. Second, we were the 'pocket book of the American government' getting paid to bring people to the hospital. And thirdly, the ER bed was for patients, their patients, of which Kanchan was not.

At the very moment when I thought my brain would explode all its anger and frustration through my mouth a nurse appeared from somewhere and none to gently cleaned and bandaged Kanchan's head wound. At least it was something. It bought us a little time. The doctor in the most dismissive tone and body language you've ever seen suggested the private hospital at Bissamcuttack 2 hrs away. I nearly bit my tongue in two fighting the urge to ask him 'What if this was your mother!!??'

With no other recourse we took Kanchan back to the house and made a pallet on the floor. I ran all over Rayagada to find her some rice and vegetables and by the time I had returned the mood was better. Kanchan was alert and communicative and with great appetite. We all watched with smiles and thankfulness. Our patient seemed stable and tomorrow we would see about her head wound. 

Kanchan sleeps in the hall by the door.
Bissamcuttack is only 50km from the house but is a two hour drive across rough terrain and through perpetual road construction. We arrived a little after 10am and the staff was quick to care for our patient. They cleaned and re-dressed the wound properly and took all of Kanchan's vitals. Abraham discussed the situation with the doctors. The preliminary suggestions were to do some blood work and keep her overnight. Someone would have to stay and I was the only one that had no real responsibilities the next day so I volunteered. The head doctor was gone for the day but would meet with me at 8 am. Abraham would try and find a home back in Rayagada to place her in. Kanchan slept through it all.

8am came with more questions than answers. Hospital policies collided with legal culpabilities and my brain was boiling again. Un-officially the hospital would do what was best for the patient. If someone was willing to stay and to pay they would treat her. The prognosis was 2 to 3 months for total rehabilitation. Officially there was no end to the legal concerns. Who was she? Is there family? Had we tried to contact her family? Had she been abused (with the implication of what if she said one of us abused her)? Was she part of a forced begging outfit? Were they looking for her? Had we contacted the police? Why hadn't we contacted the police? Who would be responsible for her? Was I able and willing to do whatever it took to see the patient well?

What would Mr. Brinker do? So few fingers. 

The head doctor sensing that I was in over my head invited me to his house for breakfast. There had been no luck finding a place for Kanchan. His advice to me was to take her to the police. She was stable. Her vitals very good. Her wound in a surprisingly good state. If I would pay he would arrange an ambulance from a private company whom he trusted to take us both there. I would tell the police the simple version of the story and they would search for her family. At worst she would be locked up in an asylum. 

More cracks. And Kanchan would slip right through. I was sick to my stomach. 

The ride back to Rayagada was numbing. Kanchan slept and I prayed. The police station was not even a half a mile from where we had found her. I went inside to explain the situation. Two hours later, having resisted the urge to give into the requested bribes, the ambulance driver hands me the phone. It is his boss. 'What is going on?' he asks sounding truly concerned. I explain that they will not let me leave. They will not take responsibility for the patient. They want a 15,000 rupee bribe. He says he will call their boss's boss and then call me back. 30 minutes later he calls again. He tells me to request to see the chief of police. His boss has spoken to him. I do just that, leaving behind a room full of disappointed empty palms. If you have ever seen a Bollywood film that caricatures the Indian police....well they are not far off. 

The Chief's office was especially tidy. Two men sat at his desk discussing wedding invitations. After ten minutes of this he smiled at me and asked me to sit. From my chair I could see his computer was open to Facebook. He was instant messaging someone and still pondering the merits of gilded print vs. full color invitations. I asked simply, 'Am I free to go?' He asked who I was and for me to repeat the story, for what must have been the tenth time. I found myself saying two phrases over and over. 'I just tried to do the right thing' and 'She's one of your people please help her'. He smiled at my earnestness, my naivete and again I asked if I was free to go. He nodded in the affirmative. Outside the youngest of the officers waited nervously. He asked again for money. I was floored. I told him we'd settle this once and for all. Would he care to step back inside with his boss? He deferred and I left. I called the owner of the ambulance service. He promised he would find a place for Kanchan. I walked for a mile until I was calm enough to hail a cab.

Ironically, Kanchan means 'gold' in Sanskrit but who invests in that type of gold? No returns, no future in that. Of course it is not the Indian continent that has a corner on selfishness. All over the world people's lives are measured against their worth to society. All over the world mankind places their hope in shiny things, if nothing else their comfort. And all the while, the truly priceless and precious souls around them suffer into oblivion. 

The scripture speaks of an age when gold will be thrown into the streets as worthless. When silver and gold will become useless to save us. As I write this gold is trading near its all-time high and everyone seems to be clamoring along blindly to get their share. But why? Because it shines? Because it is rare? What is more rare than an individual person? Gold can and will be melted and turned into whatever shape we desire. An idol for our bookshelf...the chains that bind our necks? 

Child slave mining our precious gold.
Sorry if this was a bit of a long-winded ramble. So heavy-hearted today. God send the repairers of the breach. Those that can plug up the cracks and stop the flood. Please convict us of what is worthless and what is priceless. And God please comfort Kanchan wherever she might be. I know she is infinitely more precious to You than gold. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Indian Love Story Day 20: A Sad Face.

Laughter is universal. It transcends every culture, language and accent. If I close my eyes the children outside my window could be from Arkansas or Prague. Their bellowing belly laughs crescendoing into breathless gasps of an almost pained joy...ahhh again...the music of Heaven. Absolutely friggin' delicious in spite of the pessimism of the old Indian proverb that it is impossible to find a medicine that is beneficial for health yet tastes good. Laughter is that glorious exception, it heals the heart as it strengthens the body...and oh what a taste! It lingers on the lips for hours, all cotton-candy-caramel-corn-carnival-ride kinda linger. Oh and chocolate cake and coffee. Just sayin'.

But there is a stray scripture that has always followed me home, whimpered outside my heart's door. Ecclesiastes 7:3 "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Yesterday Abraham and I left around 3pm and drove 50km to a village where there is a orphanage for boys. The ride itself was a wonder that saw us crossing a bamboo bridge-- me on foot and Abraham (below) on his motorbike. To call the engineering of said bridge suspect would be to paint with too wide a brush, better to say that certain individual slats of bamboo were well past their shelf life.

The slow, serpentine climb through the mountains afforded me time to watch the city of Rayagada shrink to plaything size. Women with their bright bundles becoming ants ferrying berries until finally we were over the ridge and the lovely little city was no more.

The temperature began to cool and the air freshened as a valley opened up before us. The road changed from paved, to dirt, to rock trail, and back again as often as Abraham had to shift gears to accommodate the endless changes in pitch and terrain. The bike whined under our weight until a long flatter stretch gave us back lost time. Cactus stood in salute under sagging power lines that once were pulled taut into the future. But that was 40 years ago and those earnest hopes for industry and advancement have long been abandoned, the power lines giving little more than dim light for the few villages lucky enough to have been under that arbitrary bisection of the mountains.

Abraham drives from memory. We race along and then suddenly slow to turn on a trail no wider than the bike itself. There are no discernible landmarks, no road signs for sure. Directions would be impossible. Turn at the rooster. If you get to the goat you went too far. The light is softer now, the air much cooler. I make conversation with my new friend. He is quite an enigma to me. Speaks five languages and knows everyone within 500 square km. It is obvious why Narges relies so heavily on him. His expertise is of incalculable worth. 

Naxal terrorists in training. They often hide in the mountains and use car bombs to incite fear.  (photo from the web)
At each village we do not stop at or road/trail we do not take, Abraham points in a general direction and says "that is Bobita's village". "That is where Priyanka is from." I ask him more about the girls. The stories of their parents. He says most were lost to Malaria but some were ripped from the children by much more sinister means. A Naxal car bomb killed the parents of one of Assist's teenage girls leaving her and her two sisters in desperation and shock. Another girl's father shot her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. 

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

We arrive at the first village and meet the boys from the home there. The whole village turns out to see the stranger and everyone is kind and generous with "Praise the Lord's", most in their native Oriya. As Abraham catches up with the elders and the home's caretaker I wander a bit to snap a few photos. Dinner comes across the road like an answer to a childhood riddle. 

It will be the first meat I've had in 7 years but far be it for me to refuse such a generous offering of welcome when so many here have so little. Deftly, but mostly because we eat in the dark, I am able put half my chicken in Abraham's bowl without anyone noticing. Pictures, praise, and a lot of prayers and it's time for us to travel another 15 km to the village where we will sleep. 

I am asked to pray for the boys before I leave. I remind them they are made in the image of their Creator. That when they see each other to remember that. When they look in the mirror to let it sink in. I tell them they are first class citizens of heaven. That they are joint-heirs with Christ. Sons of the King of Kings. Princes! They are Royalty for sure. I remind them many other things but mostly I remind them to take care of one another and to always remember to laugh. Each boy touches me before I leave. A handshake and then a tickle or two pulls grins from serious faces and soon all but a few are smiling our goodbyes. But there are several boys who still seem to be drowning in heartache.

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

I didn't fully appreciate Abraham's skill behind the handle bars until the following morning retracing the same trek in the light. But nonetheless we arrived safely in the dark at the second village to warm hearts and hot tea as the temperature started to fall more rapidly. After praise and prayer and an impromptu sermon we settle into our beds. Morning will come with three villages waiting.

The first of the mornings villages is the smallest of the five we visit. The houses are small concrete structures all attached side to side face inward as if they are all one house, sort of miniature town-homes. A young boy is brought in. After much discussion that I cannot understand the boy begins to cry and I finally have to ask Abraham what's the matter. He say the child's father died while he was an infant and the boy's mother ran off with another man when he was 2 or 3. He has lived with an aunt and at times his maternal grandfather but was placed in an orphanage from which he ran away and does not wish to return to. He was adamant about staying in the village even though the consensus was he should be placed in the orphanage of the night before. He was crying mostly from the fear he was being taken away again. We assured him he wasn't but I doubt if he really believed it. His eyes, still wet with tears, declined any and all assurances.

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Two more villages and then the long road home with scenery of such impossible beauty. Rice fields as ornate as a zen gardens climbed up the sides of a mountain. Like a scene from Hilton's Paradise Lost. Like slabs of a giant raw emerald. The photos don't even come close to doing justice to the pristine and surreal aura the place emanates. It is the only time I ask Abraham to stop for me to take photos. 

This morning I call my son. There is a downward lilt to his tone. A certain melancholy. I do not press him for his emotions anymore than I am free with mine 7000 miles from him, unable to offer any real comfort. But I know my son. I know that sound. He is missing me as much as I am missing him. He says finally, "It's just kinda sinking in dad. How long you'll be gone." Me too son. Me too. I make a promise to call him everyday now. It is a small consolation I know, a stopgap for the floodgate I fear will open. We say goodbye until tomorrow. "I love you son" I say. "Love ya dad."

The girls break the spell of sadness. I hear them from 200 meters. "Hello Uncle!" I put away my sad face. It doesn't seem to be good for anything. Certainly not for them. They deserve laughter, they deserve my best. They are waiting on the front stoop for the sun to come over the top of the house across the street so they can shed their wraps and get going. They begin to play a badminton of sorts and some other game akin to catch a little further up the road. I sit next to Renjita, alone with her and my thoughts. She combs and re-combs her thick black hair and powders her kind face. What does it mean?

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

When Narges speaks of some of the girls, the tragedies that orphaned them and their amazing progress or recovery or whatever you want to call it, she often wonders if the girls have ever grieved, ever really confronted their losses. She wants to bring the girls to the villages they are from, to face those demons of rejection, fear, or much, much worse. And I think she's got it. I think that is what it means:

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Sometimes to find joy we must bleed the sorrow, vent the vast pressure of our despairs. To find that laughter that can truly heal, the one not tempered by sadness, the one that billows freely, effortlessly, up from the pit of our stomachs and cannot have the wind knocked from it by despair....sometimes we have to cry and to grieve, very very deeply.

Thank you all for supporting Prishan Foundation. No one loves these girls more than Narges and no one I think knows better for them what they need than her. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your continued generosity for the work she is doing here.