New.

It was soft, shadow-streaked dusk
and I gazed at the eyelashes
of a brown, bare-legged bundle

I had seen the tearful ones
wide eyes and distended bellies
clutched against gaunt hips

She was crowned in black,
graced with a wrinkled frown;
sleeping trace of waking light

And I marveled
to hold something so light
and feel such weight of glory

Advertisements

Fractured light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sprawl of steps, a stretch of pavement,
and the ragged edges of humanity
colour the space between myself and the mosque

A knot of three or four children flit alongside
brief, urgent steps marking time, sharp and shattered
barefoot remains of unclaimed existence

A tiny sea of cries, and from among them
a small hand reaches, presses against my hip
and remains there, as if a touch could heal

The hem of a sari brushes the street, the feet of Delhi
the hem of a soul comes unstitched, fibers drift
within a web of fractured light

Whole things.

Each day, simplicity becomes more and more precious.

Simple wonder, as Yokesh discovers a piece of discarded styrofoam beneath a bush and and bounds across the yard scattering synthetic snowflakes under the August sunset.

Simple solidarity, as one small girl takes care of another because she is old enough; because she has a comb and hair needs combing.

Simple delight, as the Eden-eyed girl from Semmandakuppam studies the printed portrait I’ve brought nine thousand miles to place in her hands.

Simple beauty, as eyes as bright as the sunshine in Bangalore meet mine; delicate features full of elegance in miniature.

Simple celebration, as we embrace spontanaeity and inborn rhythm for no reason besides surplus joy.

Simple giving, as Yokesh hands me coral roses, petaled relics of the sacred, gravelly earth beneath our feet.

They teach me that simplicity lends space to the spirit, clarity to the mind, peace to the heart, rest to the body, light to the eyes. They teach me that simplicity makes fragments into whole things. They teach me to leave my shoes behind and let the soul run barefoot. They teach me to look through a lens of eternity, a lens of gratitude, a lens of grace.

Endlessly, they teach me.

Rivers and roads.

“Will you come back next year?”

At this point, I already sensed that I would be unable to stay away from this haven of love and simplicity for long. But I tried not to make unstable promises.

“I hope so. I’ll try hard.”

He shook his head emphatically.

“No. Not try. Must you will come back.”

(Heart pain, ii.)

About a month ago, I met an Indian woman who was preparing to make a trip back to her home country to see friends from thirty years ago. She had no more family to return to, and all that remained was pilgrimage for the sake of pilgrimage.

“It is painful to be in your homeland as a tourist,” she told me.

Is there anyone who cannot relate to that longing for home, for your true country, whether your place of birth or your place of rebirth? Her words faintly echoed a line from the song that played as my first flight to Mumbai left the runway: “If you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born/ Then it’s time to go.”

That time has come. The next flight to India leaves tomorrow evening. Pavi was right: must I will come back.

At last.

 

Taken.

© Noelle Garnier, 2012

Ten of my Valentines. Each one is a beautiful, precious, irreplaceable soul.
I love them, miss them, pray for them, and can’t wait to be with them again.

நான் உன்னை காதலிக்கிறேன்

My [short-lived] Valentine.

Today is the perfect day to write about Premkumar because it’s his fifteenth birthday and, of course, Valentine’s Day. More than likely, Valentine’s Day is his favorite day of the year anyway, and the fact that he was born on the 14th of February is very fitting.

I knew in advance that Prem was something of a showboat as well as an excellent dancer, but the former truly exceeded my expectations, especially when he demonstrated his, um, remarkable modeling prowess. The gesture on the left greeted me virtually every time I entered a hundred-foot radius of Prem, and usually multiple times before I left. Within a day or two it was accompanied by air kisses and constant winks.

One afternoon during Pongal, we were sitting outdoors and I noticed a square shape in his pocket. I asked him what it was and he reached into the other pocket. After some insistence, Prem (squealing like a girl) produced a notebook featuring a bare-shouldered Tamil actress (positively scandalous by Indian standards).

“Prem, who is this?” I asked, feigning shock. He giggled unintelligibly. “Who is it?”

“You, Aunty!”

Thanks, Prem.

Later, he confessed to someone that he “liked this girl” and, with a pitifully melodramatic expression, claimed to suffer extreme heart pain thereat. Evidently, the heart pain wasn’t all that bad and he made his first move the following evening when he pulled me out of the chapel to “tell me something,” which actually turned out to be a kiss on the cheek. The next night, he and Pavi asked if I had a boyfriend in America, at which time I apparently became Prem’s girlfriend. I wasn’t taken for long, however, until sweet and truth-telling Pavithran outed Prem — who, it turns out, was taken — and after an animated exchange in Tamil, conveniently ensured that our relationship status was lost in translation.

The End.

Happy Birthday (Piranda Naal Vaazhthukkal!) to my favorite showboat and short-lived “boyfriend,” who is nonetheless an irresistible sweetheart.

Glorious.

As we left Semmandakuppam, the village came to life and the sun emerged with exquisite brilliance. Until India, I’d seen few things that were sublime.

The last portion of the trip was spent in Mumbai. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the hotel was only a few blocks away from Falkland Road (Mumbai’s red-light district), one of the first places that caught my attention when I began researching forced labor and commercial exploitation last spring.

Before leaving the States, I sensed that I would see something in Mumbai from which there would be no turning away. To quote Wilberforce, “We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it; it is now an object placed before us, we can not pass it; we may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it…” (source) Of course I didn’t know what it would be, but I felt pretty sure it would concern my calling to speak for the voiceless and defend the rights of the poor and needy.

It didn’t take long.

The first glimpse of Mumbai was enchanting. As late-afternoon traffic wandered along the Queen’s Necklace (the shore named for its sparkling nighttime skyline), I gazed at the Arabian Sea, wonderstruck. Dozens of entwined silhouettes graced the horizon. (This photographer captures the scene beautifully.) Certain avenues were a cross between art-deco London and the Orient of fairy tales.

After dark, the claws came out.

For a first-time visitor to Mumbai, it is near impossible to be vigilant of your surroundings because your eyes are constantly in front of your feet, especially at night. As you walk through a Vanity Fair-like array of vendors, your eyes are so trained on your steps that you aren’t particularly aware of who is awaiting or approaching you …

until a young girl with a malnourished toddler on her hip holds out her hand.
until a mother with a sickly infant hears and calls out your name, as one of us experienced.
until you spot a tiny child sleeping alone in a filthy, shadowy corridor.
until a mangled contortionist, less twisted than the one who mutilated him, gazes up at you.

You cannot give money because it encourages begging, ends up in the pockets of whoever is exploiting the cripple, and never satisfies the need. Give to one and be accosted by the rest, or so I’ve been told.

The next day, we visited several of Mumbai’s landmarks including India’s most well-known Dhobi Ghat, an open-air laundromat. In the middle of the street approaching the site, a handful of half-dressed children ran against traffic with expressions somewhere between glee and menace. They caught sight of the Americans, climbed the iron fence along the curb, and howled. Not even words, just guttural shrieks as we walked by. After we had marveled at the Dhobi Ghat from an overpass, they darted between and around us in a desperate attempt for pity before we and our money were gone.

The girl chased behind me, calling out again and again “One dollar, Aunty! One dollar! Please, one dollar!” Her bare foot landed on the back of my flip-flop, and she ran forward to face me with pleading eyes before I disappeared into a vehicle and she disappeared into a landscape of wild eyes and outstretched hands.

For one whose heart longs to provide for the needy and rescue the forsaken, it feels wretched to be so wealthy and pass by the empty-handed. It is nauseating to think that to them, you are not compassion, nor providence, nor rescue, but a rich Westerner with averted eyes and closed ears.

But my eyes were not averted and my ears were not closed. “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know,” said Wilberforce.

I do not know the names, the abuses, or the souls, but I heard the cry and I tell the story because it must be told. Who else will know unless those who go are faithful to tell what they saw? Who else can speak on behalf of the destitute? Who else can intercede?

Malar. © Noelle Garnier, 2012

Herein lies one of the wonders of the invisible kingdom: that through the resources and prayers of others, I can go and carry back a story so that you, without going, can defend them before the very throne of God. You are part of the story. 

I tell these stories with conviction because telling them is the first step of change. This is how we bring identity to those who cannot identify themselves and a voice to those who cannot raise their own. Stories unlock compassion, compassion unlocks action, and action unlocks freedom.

Freedom is a glorious story. The restoration of beauty is a glorious story. Love that leads the way is a glorious story.

One day, there will be glorious stories to tell.

Heart pain, iv. or The Hardest Part

This post has been lingering in the draft box for a very long time while I wrote the others leading up to it. I took it out, looked at it, and put it back almost every day. Then the other three were done, and I still just looked at it, changed things, put it back. A dozen times.

I knew from the start that the whole “Heart Pain” series would be a brave but futile attempt to condense an experience that can’t really be condensed. Even though the stories are incomplete, I got through the first few — mostly in the middle of the night– because I knew how to tell them, how to convey some fraction of the impact. I lost my courage on the fourth. You can’t type tears, you can’t type love, and you sure can’t type heart pain.

But I don’t want to put it back again.

first part here
second part here
third part here

I swept my belongings off the shelf, tugged bangles onto my wrists, and zipped shut the cherry-red suitcase. Shouldered my backpack and dragged it all down a flight of stairs. Added it to the pile — checked luggage to one side, carry-ons to the other — and entered our meeting room to see all the children gathered, most looking ill or openly sobbing. They looked how I felt.

Such was the scene as we prepared to leave Semmandakuppam early on the eighteenth of January.

A few days earlier, I had left the kids for a little while to briefly reflect and sort out some thoughts. I hadn’t been alone for very long before I missed the rest of India again.

A nauseating thought dawned. You can barely leave them for half an hour. What are you going to do when …? 

I climbed the stairs to the roof and looked in all directions. The coconut trees and sugarcane crops were more beautiful than the architectural feats I once dreamed of traveling the world to find. The mountains sloped and faded into haze. The brilliant sunlight, so different from the kind we know in the west, overwhelmed brand new eyes.

This was not on the map. I was not supposed to look out on a remote Tamil village and see home. This was supposed to be a change of scenery, nothing drastic. It was not supposed to change my vision or trajectory. My heart was not supposed to be invaded, emptied out, divided, and made whole.

Suppositions are fragile things.

I began to understand what was behind Peter’s desperate “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If You wish, I will put up three shelters.” 

If You wish … But He did not wish. Not yet.

Everything in me shuddered, and I clung to the hope that His love is strong.

And then, the luggage was being piled into the bus and we had to say goodbye to all those children. Goodbyes are among my numerous weaknesses and I had little to say, only children to embrace. Tears did not fall even as I said goodbye to Pavi who stood stoic, hands behind his back.

I looked over and saw a familiar pair of purple polka-dotted pants. Nithya had wandered in while I was with the others. She gave me her crinkly-nosed smile, but with questioning eyes. I picked her up, hugged her tightly, and lost whatever fragment of bravery remained.

Moments later, everything was packed and the students clustered to the side for our departure. Pavi didn’t even move to brush away the tears as we said our final farewell.

We boarded and I looked back at dozens of faces etched with expressions ranging from smiling nostalgia to the throes of grief. Fortitude did not avail itself; a plurality of tears did.

There are no words for what that moment felt like, except that it surpassed, but was not unlike, everything I ever learned the hard way about reckless love.

A boy in an orange shirt and gray beanie, a boy particularly small in stature but particularly tall in courage, looked at me and put his hand over his chest as if to hold back whatever welled inside.

He does know something about heart pain.

Heart pain, iii.

first part
second part
fourth part to come.

Pavithran and Premkumar. © Noelle Garnier, 2012.

Everyone — our team and all the kids — sat on the back field after a late dinner, tense in the knowledge that the next morning, we would blink away the haze, swallow the tears, and board the vehicle that would transport us back to Bangalore.

I saw Pavi motion for me to come sit on his blanket. I joined him and we watched while the others set up the stereo so we could have one final dance party before leaving.

“Will you dance with us?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll try.”

He nodded. “Celebrating tonight is … strange feeling.”

Children talked loudly all around us and stereo static whistled while we sat there quietly in the grass and looked up at the stars. He put his arm through the bend of my elbow.

After a long silence, he asked, “How do we dance when we have this much heart pain?”

How do you answer when asked all you’ve ever hoped to know of grace?
What do you say when someone who has shouldered enough heart pain for a lifetime before finishing ninth grade asks you how to rejoice in spite of crushing sorrow? It’s like asking one blind how to see.

“I don’t know how, Pavi, I just know that we do. We just learn to dance even when heart pain is heavy… we still have heart pain, and we still dance. We don’t not dance because of tomorrow, we celebrate because we’re here.”

It was enough. Inadequate to describe the grace of God, but enough for the moment there on the field.

Isn’t everything we know about rejoicing incomplete? Isn’t every dance accompanied by heart pain as we long for the day when He makes all things new?

Maybe it’s grace that lets us roll up our cuffs, let our hair down, look heartbreak in the eye, and turn up the stereo. Could the pain be part of the gift? Might we miss the miracle by grieving what is later instead of celebrating what is now?

“This is my song!” Pavi is a phenomenal dancer, one of the best I’ve seen on either side of the globe.

“This song’s yours?”

I saw joy in his eyes, felt pain in my heart, and trusted in eight thousand miles’ worth of grace.

Aaja aaja jind shamiyane ke tale …

“It’s mine too.”

Prem and Pavi dancing. © Noelle Garnier, 2012.

What I know.

© Noelle Garnier, 2012

I heard this song for the first time at 3:30 this morning while I was awake looking at pictures and thinking about the children I love and miss so dearly. It gives words to the simultaneous extreme hope and extreme pain of going, seeing, loving, leaving, and returning very much changed to a world very much the same. 

Lyrics to “I Saw What I Saw” by Sara Groves.

I saw what I saw and I can’t forget it,
I heard what I heard and I can’t go back,
I know what I know and I can’t deny it.

Something on the road cut me to the soul.

Your pain has changed me
Your dream inspires
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I’m afraid of
and what I know of love.

We’ve done what we’ve done and we can’t erase it,
We are what we are and it’s more than enough,
We have what we have but it’s no substitution.

Something on the road cut me to the soul.

I say what I say with no hesitation,
I have what I have and I’m giving it up,
I do what I do with deep conviction.

Something on the road cut me to the soul.

Your courage asks me what I’m afraid of
Your courage asks me what I am made of
Your courage asks me what I’m afraid of
and what I know of love
and what I know of God.