Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thankful for Complicated Moments

In this year, I've been marked by some strange moments. Some I choose not to remember very often as uncomfortable and terrifying as they were. During Thanksgiving this year, I could not get away from the fact that most of the "things" I am thankful for this year are the spaces that I have had these terrifying, awkward, confusing moments. Part of me has no idea why I'm thankful for them. They weren't miserable. They were startling. Intense emotion that I've never had to feel before.

But I'm thankful. I'm thankful for them because I believe they are teaching me in a new way that my former "thankful lists" were incomplete because I gave thanks for permanent fixtures in my life. But very little, I'm learning, is ever a permanent fixture. What does thankfulness mean when what I'm thankful for can disappear?

The crazy moments are, I hope, teaching me to be thankful for even the transitoriness of all things. I have to practice being thankful for the moments that terrify me, the ones that take away my "voice", my sense of identity.

Thankfulness is a constant state and not the things that I am thankful for.

So instead of giving you a list of things or situations that I'm thankful for, I want to share a complicated moment: the Bora Caves trip when I was in India this summer.

Bora Caves

Bora caves are a tourist trap.

I don't even know how to spell "Bora".

I was there as a tourist.

We entered the caves and they were cool.

Prasad had to fight the monkey off of Missy as it tried to eat our granola bars. It was used to people feeding it and made no distinction, unless out of maliciousness, of our bright and open tourist faces.

I wore my scarf carefully, over my head, trying not to appear as white as I could not help being. I was born white and would stay white, even with a deep tan in Indian sun and the modest scarf.

A horn sounded from the depths of the cave. It sounded greeting, war, the end of the world, memory. I was not sure so, like everything else that didn't make sense, I accepted and walked into the damp smell of old space, old water, old bat dung. 

The stairs were wet and I thought I was going to fall. I was walking first and the altitude was getting to my legs. I could feel them burning. Somehow, my heart wasn't beating and it needed to. All I could feel were my legs and shallow breaths but no rise in heart beat. I dared myself to climb first. I felt like climbing was dangerous. It got steep at the end. It was so dark and I climbed toward the roof. Caves. There was water dripping on my head and I imagined the bat dung that was falling. I didn't see a bat but heard them, smelled them. They were starting to move in August. It was their spring. The last steps were more like a ladder than anything and I climbed and they creaked even though they were metal. They attached themselves to the stone wall and I tried not to look down and think of Moria. But I reached the top first. Alone. And I got on my knees and looked into the alcove. Smell of incense. Nothing else in the world smells like incense like incense does. And there were candles. And a carving or a painting. I don't remember which. Marigolds. Other strands of flowers. Bright tinsel.

And a man in the corner sitting, as only everyone else in the world can do, on his heels.

 My language does not have words for his face when our eyes met. 

He was neither young nor old. He watched, guarded, but staring. My American English called it "sullen". But it was not. It was an expression my language doesn't have words for. The one that is on the faces of men and women who are working and alone, the men who wear dress clothes with most of the buttons undone and a turban, and just waits and doesn't speak English and so there is this incredible gap. Or is it because I don't speak telagu?

There aren't words for the unlanguaged sound that nearly escaped me, the scream, at how suddenly he materialized out of the shadow to stare at me.

And what was my face to him? Startled? Flighty? Empty?

I nearly fell back down the stairs. My body started shaking, alone in this small space with a man I had not expected to find. I climbed down very slowly and told the others climbing behind me that he was there. Christen still almost screamed, even though she knew he was there.

Andy told me later that the sound of the horn that echoed through the caves, calling to what, to whom, just calling an end to the age was blown by this man every five minutes. I didn't have language to ask him why he waited for us to pay ruppees to light our incense and remember spirits.

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