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a small photo report of Aasha!Johannah Murphy, Sharanam Center for Girls, Dharavi Slum, Mumbai During a U.S.A. Culture and History class students develop Powerpoints about Native Peoples on the Center’s computers Students working on their own interpretation of Pueblo art during another U.S.A. History and Culture class College students gather to participate in a leadership workshop at a local café as part of the curriculum project: “The Empowered Advocate Initiative” A group of students celebrating August Birthdays in the main room of Sharanam CenterAugust 23, 2013
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Johannah Murphy, Sharanam Center for Girls, Dharavi Slum, Mumbai
During a U.S.A. Culture and History class students develop Powerpoints about Native Peoples on the Center’s computers
Students working on their own interpretation of Pueblo art during another U.S.A. History and Culture class
College students gather to participate in a leadership workshop at a local café as part of the curriculum project: “The Empowered Advocate Initiative”
A group of students celebrating August Birthdays in the main room of Sharanam Center
The sound of a rubber orange basketball hitting the pavement has a specific and satisfying sound. A sound that can only be described as a orange rubber ball hitting concrete. I have always thought basketball was a satisfying game. A game satisfying to watch, as though my height may hint at otherwise, I’m pretty bad at it. A satisfying fast paced sport filled with those sounds of sneakers and balls hitting the court, with a rhythm most sports, at least from my view, lack.
Some of the girls I work with take basketball lessons at the YMCA in the area in which I live. Globally, I have found YMCAs to have a pretty down to earth, wholesome, feel. The YMCA in Bandra has a feeling of wholesomeness that is exemplified by the thick rows of coconut and palm trees that line the outdoor basketball court and the full tree-provided canopy that shades the court and main building. These trees create, what I like to think of anyways, a bubble free from the normal Mumbai pollution. A bubble that contains the freshest of fresh coconut infused air for my little basketball players. Besides my fondness for the game and the relief of breathing coconut infused air, there is a third reason why I love bringing the girls to basketball.
I love being the one who takes them to this place I find wholesome, I love being the one of the ones to help them build their extra-curricular activities. I love being the one to bustle them into the car. I love being the one to buy them snacks and pop straws into their juice boxes. I love being their part-time soccer mom, or rather basketball mom.
These girls have tons of amazing people that see the girls as daughters, as sisters, loving them and consistently acting on that love. Perhaps this is why I feel honored to be able to, even just for a couple of hours, be one of their moms. To be one of the people that carves out constructive wholesome chunks of times for them to develop their basketball skills amongst that coconut air.
I also understand more now the want many mothers have to take their children to extra-curricular activities, or even the joy of taking them to school. There is something satisfying, good, and lovefulfilling to be the force behind at least attempting to enrich the lives of young children, to be the force that drops them off at a place where they learn, run, play, interact with other kids, and sip on mango juice next to those thick tree rows.
It is the same feeling I get when I feed people. The feeling of not only fulfilling a need that needs to be fulfilled, but fulfilling a need you also know and have. A need that you can both recognize and fulfill. A need that because of your own understanding ties you to some greater cycle. A cycle that allows you to feel connected in a world so often filled to the brim with disconnect.
And I do feel connected at basketball lessons. Connection when one of the girls waves and smiles after she finishes a series of sprints. Connected when a baby waiting with his mom for older siblings wanders over and gently touches my skirt. Connected when the mother smiles at both of us carefully watching that her baby does not grab my skirt. I feel connected when I bring them back home. Back home after lecturing them about why they should not throw their plastic straw sleeves on the ground. Back home after potato chips and pineapple juice, back home after a car ride full of Lootera and Chennai Express sing-a-alongs, back home to more loving mothers. Back home to their ever expansive and connected family that consistently is feeding and caring for each other whether it be on the YMCA grounds, the tidily swept tiled floors of the Sharanam Centre, or anywhere else.
There is a little boy who always comes to the Religious Exploration program I run on Sundays. I knew prior to arriving at church the Sunday after the Connecticut shooting, that his parents had not told him what happened. This boy is five. At first I was critical of this decision as I knew that any child who attended school, would be hearing all about the shooting, truths and untruths from classmates, teachers, and administrators on Monday. It seemed important to let their child have as much time as he could talking and processing with his parents before unleashed into an atmosphere where all truth can get jumbled and things are often unclear, muddled, and confusing.
But then came Sunday and I saw his face. I saw his face and I teared up just looking at him. I realized that if I had to tell him I would have to tell him that no, the children didn’t do anything bad, no they weren’t anywhere that is usually unsafe. They were children like him who went to school on an ordinary day. I saw this boy’s face and I no longer felt capable of following guidelines of reassuring children that though bad things happen we live in a good world, that though the world is unsafe his family will always do everything they can to keep him safe. I knew that if I was his parent I wouldn’t want to engage in any of this reassuring, in any process of talking about what happened in Connecticut. I would just want to hold him and never let him go. Ever.
In conversation about this event I kept saying that my want for children had diminished and that seeing something like this happen, made me not want to have kids. Though in my mind this seemed logical, it wasn’t actually true. I still do really want children and a family. I feel almost close to guilt thinking about how I still want kids after knowing what could happen to them, knowing how little control I will have over their safety and well being. But then I think about why I want kids and a family. I want a family because I believe that true wholeness is found between people, that feeling whole, feeling complete doesn’t actually exist for an individual but exists in pieces that come together when people come together. I want a family for the coming together and growing of wholeness that brings with it a glimpse of a collective wholeness. A wholeness that perhaps if nourished, grown, and worked on could prevent events like these from happening, that could promote a connectivity that leads to a true peace.
I have been shaking a bit lately. I know its not medical, I know its just me. Maybe it’s me finally admitting to myself how I am not complete or whole. I need people, because people need people. I want my own family, for a chance at a unit of wholeness. I will keep wanting this because I think there is hope for my children and that there is a chance that the world could get better and make room for them that isn’t interrupted by horrific violent acts.
I am not ready to be the first person, the one who has tell a child about what happened in Connecticut. But maybe I never will be, maybe no one is ever ready for that, as we all have hope that something like this won’t happen to us, to the people we love, to anyone. We have hope in a possible wholeness. I hope, I pray, that while we continue to feel the suffering of others that we continue to feel a hope for wholeness that made up of units and small pieces stretches and expands far beyond any of us into something greater.
I was hesitant at first. About her irregular heartbeat. I listened to it anyway. To her beat. I found it on roads full of potholes, riddled with rocks and mud. I found it within restaurants that promised food they didn’t have. I found it tucked neatly away in surprisingly beautiful landscapes. I found it in screaming and giggling babies, all securely tied to backs and fronts. I found it hidden among tomatoes and bananas, among faded bills, paper scraps, greasy city pizza, and luke warm beer. And of course in trees that sky spiraled and pierced.
Her beat beats through the meals made from neighbors, through and from carved out gardens, planted trees, washed clothes, and open arms. Her beat beat compassion. Compassion that fought through the rudeness of some truck drivers, the ridiculousness of officials, and the greed of them both.
Her compassion beats through a madness of chaos and lack of resources. Comes out beating a beat that builds the best faith. The best hope. Faith that comes from a non-sensical piece of ground, but comes through anyway, allowing for those unwarranted acts of kindness.
Beating to a song on repeat. Beating along with a laugh that rises from both a Malawian and a foreigner’s belly.Beating so strong it hints at and pokes at that somewhat hushed Malawian pride. The love of being Malawian. The love of knowing where your from. The love of knowing what grows in the soil and how. The love of knowing that neighbor, that one you have always known.
Beating to the ridiculousness of Peace Corps volunteers and all their thoughts that so intensely rise when grouped together. Beating to that being together and even better, the beat of feeling so together. The beating of all those anxious hearts that at some times want to beat with Malawi’s heart, and at other times would like nothing more than to beat a million miles away.
Regardless of the beat my heart beats now, what a privilege it was to feel and be able to match my heart, my own rhythms and beats, to one of such surprising strength.It is always a privilege to be able to beat with another heart,and an exceptional privilege to be allowed in on a rhythm of a country.
The five other people were middle aged, a little frumpy perhaps, but still donning expensive yoga gear. Facing the mirrors I realized everyone had dark green or brown yoga mats. I did not. My bright pink one stuck out, looking as if it was slightly glowing amidst its more earth toned brothers and sisters. It was a Hot Hatha yoga class and according to the description was “A very gentle flow and stretch, and a spiritual journey.” As this was a yoga class, a gentle, spiritual one at that, there was a large focus on breath and breathing.
Standing in front of the mirrors proud that I didn’t forget my mat, towel, or water. Delighting in my pink yoga mat. Delighting in the fact that my t-shirt, finger and toe nails, all matched the pink rectangle on the wooden floor.I realized that though I didn’t forget to coordinate my outfit with the mat, I had forgotten my breath.
I felt shallow. In all senses. I felt like the girl who had so carefully put herself together to look as if she did yoga, but actually had no idea what it actually was and felt no desire to know. Not only did I have all the materials, all the accesories,they all looked good. I looked good. I was convincing. But I couldn’t breathe.
Though everyone around me may have had un-manicured toes that didn’t match their mat, they all had their breath. They were all excellent at it in fact. With each new pose their breathing rhythm never broke. Strong from the beginning, their breath was grounded, effortless. If it hadn’t been for me, our room might have contained one breath,one deep, measured, breath made of many.
But I have confirmed that I am horrible at breathing. My breaths were and are shallow. Often I couldn’t even really catch them. As in many yoga classes we were instructed to breathe through all the poses. When something was difficult or we had to hold a pose we were again told to try breathing through it, to concentrate on the breath. I did concentrate on the breath, but I found it tangled. The instructor talked about emptiness, letting things go, not being afraid of having empty spaces. Maybe part of the problem was not enough of me was emptied out. My breath felt as if it had to careen and sneak by so many things, so many filled spaces, so many thoughts, emotions, anxieties.
Regardless of whether my breath was caught on anxiety or entangled in sadness I realized that I haven’t really been breathing. Even tucked away in child’s pose immobile and calm, I knew my breaths were inferior to the ones being breathed next to me. I think in that moment I created even more sadness and anxiety for my breath to avoid and wriggle around. It squeezed itself through found empty crevices, wanting room to spread out and move.
Maybe thats my problem. Maybe I am thinking I have to solve all these inner road blocks. But maybe I just have to train my breath to cut through it. To cut through, forge ahead, provide a breath that can cut through any emotional or other sort of turmoil. Cutting through, knowing that it is a force, a connector, a part of one, one breath.
My sister and I used to have hanging beads instead of a bedroom door. Hideous plastic multi-color beads that jangled when anyone entered and afforded absolutely no privacy. But we thought they were beyond cool. Smiley faces clanged with translucent purple. Running into the room to grab a forgotten bag or book, meant getting whipped in the face. They were horrible.
But, as any beaded bedroom door should be, it was short lived. The beads and all their character, their tackiness, soon gave way to a door. Though we started to value our privacy more, our room in some ways, still looked as if it could have a beaded door. It was an insane collection of colors, creatures, and designs. Our ceiling was painted in swirls and creatures, all of them hesitantly situated around our fan that over the years remained with only two blades. Even though our beds were bunked, the room was still quite small and filled with dressers and desks covered in candles, clutter, and an occasional printed cloth.
Our room was insane. An insane burst of Murphy Girl heightened when our alarm clock would blare either the Roots or the Monsoon Wedding song track moving us on our way to High School.
But the beds are un-bunked now and occupy separate rooms. The ceilings and floors are off-white covering up fish and bad poetry all written and drawn on our turquoise walls. Clutter has been removed and a bareness has settled over the house, warning visitors that no one truly occupies this space anymore. The house, its occupants, are all in transition.
One of my friends was telling me over breakfast about how her mother has a custom where she makes my friend change her sheets right before she leaves her house to go back to school or her apartment. She sleeps in them one more night and her mother leaves them on the bed till she comes back. She leaves the sheets slept in by my friend, so she’ll come back, so she’ll come back to her bed, so she’ll come back home.
When I arrived home from the airport, there was a just a comforter on my bed for show. No sheets. I grabbed a second comforter and slept on the first with a second on top. I could put on sheets, but perhaps it makes sense that there are none, because I am probably not coming back to this bed, this room, this house.
It may fit better to say I grew up in Malawi. I grew up after surviving life, projects, and much alone time, in a rural African village. Of course growing up is a process that is many pronged. Langston Hughes says that ‘Love is a growing up’ and Virginia Wolff says that ‘Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.’ Maya Angelou makes some reference to how most people never grow up, they just age. Perhaps that is what I did in Malawi, a little bit of growing up, but mostly aging, thinking I could make home anywhere if I could carry my own water and build a fire. But really what I grew was more character, a little bit of muscle, and skill.
Sleeping, or trying to sleep in my old room, I felt growing pains. I grew a little bit when I realized that the creatures were painted over and that I probably won’t paint anymore creatures on ceilings. I grew more when my bunk bed was disassembled and I had no desire to re-assemble it. I grew even more when I realized I would probably fall down and grow up with each new love.I grew knowing how growing can be loving and knowing and losing it all and starting again. Painting over and painting anew. Growing to survive all those disassmeblings that make way for new assemblings. Growing up to grow on.
The hum was soft but more high-pitched then expected. It sounded as if more than one person was humming though they both kept losing their breath and re-starting the insistent semi-musical buzz. As I am in the only place in the states not boiling over with summer heat, this morning I stepped inside a warm Seattle coffee place wrapped in a scarf and was glad for the warmth. I always forget about this crowd, I assume there will be less people on a Saturday morning. In my mind everyone is flipping pancakes and making coffee in their own respective homes to the background of morning cartoons or will have gone to their favorite breakfast place to have enormous omelettes making up for their weekday choice of coffee and a muffin. With no one rushing to work or to school I just usually imagine quieter Saturday morning coffee cafes.
Not the case. Instead of men and women in their business wear grabbing paper cups of caffeine and bags of muffins, instead of parents rushing back to the car filled with kids, all the kids are here, underfoot. Having their muffins cut up and hot chocolate portioned out to cool it down, they wriggle about in their chairs and on the floor. They fill tables and floors ecstatic to not only be out of the house but to be eating whipped cream off hot chocolates and cream cheese off bagels with their dad sitting beside them wiping off that whipped cream that somehow made it onto his weekend fleece pullover.
Becoming more accustomed to my surroundings, I soon realized that the melodious hum was coming not from a child exactly, but from a rambunctious small lion with a fleecy brown coat, scraggly mane, zippered back, and inconceivably small Tevas. She and her partner in crime (dressed in street wear) where zipping around tables and chairs lightly laughing and making their whir of hum presumably to keep the world spinning and the universe going. Lost in hums and wearing a look of surprise at the café’s weekend transformation, I reached the point where some young attractive guy in line wants to commiserate about the sudden emergence of tiny people seemingly already somehow caffeinated.
Alas, though it might be in my best interest to commiserate and perhaps even flirt, I have already become lost. Not only am I ready to scoop up the small lion in Tevas and either hum or roar, I am afraid I have already imagined that I have children I need to attend to. At this point in a pre-coffee state its very possible I will walk up to a Prius and try to get in, routing out the best way to get to that little league game. Its possible that I crazily start writing to do lists that include laundry not my own, and scheduling things like play dates. I might also end up buying cookies and muffins with whimsical names for my children who await my arrival at home. I might even go as far as to find a Whole Foods happily pursuing the aisles for healthy snacks and treats, scheming what family dinners should be for the week.
Eventually I am hit with my actual reality, come to realize my coffee mug is full, I should start walking home, the cute guy in front of me has left, and for some reason I am holding a small paper bag containing three hummingbird muffins. Nothing left to do but take a bite, walk out, and hum.
My iPhone has an application for the Muslim call to prayer. The ‘Islamic Finder’. Its square space on the screen complements the other small ‘Free Music’ and ‘Learn sign language’ application squares. The call to prayer sounds off every day at Fajr, Sunrise, Dhuhu, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha. My sister is not a huge fan of this app, not because of her feelings towards the prayers or Muslims, per se but because of its abrasive interruption and poor sound quality. She frequently ponders its relevancy to my life as a non-Muslim, why I need to broadcast to everyone within hearing distance a prayer not my own. A valid ponder. A few of weeks ago my sister and I pulled over to buy something at a gas station mini mart. It was dark and the car was facing the air pumps and car vacuums. My sister got out of the car to run into the store while I waited. In front of me, a man pulled his taxi over to a somewhat vacant area of the gas station. He got out of his car with a prayer rug and began his prayers.
Often as a Unitarian Universalist I struggle with creating my own prayer space, a space Muslims create anywhere facing a certain way, five times a day. I struggle to find a spiritual home or a sense of ritual outside of church (if I am in fact going to church at all). I find within a spiritual sphere I look for a home, a found grounding and sacredness where one can hear and be heard. But I have yet to find how to sustain this space or be able to find it continually.
The other week I went to a UU service here in Seattle, where my sister is working and living. The service turned out to be more of an info session about the annual UU General Assembly summit in Arizona and less of a cohesive, spiritually based sermon. While discussing the GA theme of immigration, many participants mentioned the need to feel the suffering of others in order to feel the suffering of the world. Congregants commented on the idea that all of our liberation and freedom is tied together. But no one was able to pin point how this is achieved. How people come to a place of true empathy, how people get to a place where they feel compelled to fight for a freedom not their own, out of feeling the suffering this lack of freedom has created. I know that everyone could identify the suffering of many and some even act on it, but how do people come to a place where they truly feel that suffering, where they feel it in a way in which it feels and becomes their own?
Hungering for a sermon, more cohesion and direction, I started to think about prayer. Prayer as a way to feel empathy that’s not always possible to reach through personal connection. I considered the need for prayer. I considered the comfort I felt to hear the call of prayer from a different religious tradition than my own. Perhaps part of feeling the suffering of others in a real way asks to be felt through a channel similar to prayer.
Many find that they can be empathetic when they establish a personal connection. But the suffering of the world extends beyond the amount of people you can know, affect, and love. Since this task is impossible, the task of establishing connection with all who suffer, maybe it could be done in prayer. A both active and spiritual approach of communication to an unsure end, but a desired one nonetheless. A way to be able to route yourself to a place of true empathy, praying for the courage to feel someone else’s pain however far removed.
In order to fully love and connect, I think it is necessary to try and feel the suffering of the world, acknowledging that all of it can never be fully felt. In order to acknowledge this, in order to make room for love, we should work on constructing home between people, homes where suffering can be expressed and love can build up. A continuous prayer of creating, building, sacrificing, for people in pursuit of building up many homes that belong connected and linked. Creating communion that allows for both the difficult and the good, between people and what is created between them. A prayer for home that is creating, that is requesting, that is building home with people outside those classic lines of communication. Praying to feel suffering, praying to feel its end, praying to be a part of that end.
A couple of days ago after many a twist and turn around warehouses and empty lots of San Francisco, my friend and I found ourselves in the bridal boutique where she was expected for a fitting. Classy, elegant, sleeveless, and off-white, her bridal gown reached to the floor with a bodice held up with boning. Amongst bridesmaid dresses, magazines, pins, and dresses that create pools at your feet, I started to consider bodices, dress structures, and all other things that hold us up. My friend stood elegantly and happy in her dress that is sleeveless, and of folding off-white silk material that pools at her feet into a silky circle to cover her small bridal heels. I think its rare that people know exactly who they are and where they are going in their dresses, whether ‘bodiced’ or not, and I know she is among the ones who do know.
Most woman feel confident when they feel beautiful. The luckiest of brides feel a certain type of confidence that stems from knowing that someone believes your radiance is beyond beauty. And you believe them. The night after the fitting, between bites of delicious and amazing grilled hen, polenta, and pasta, my friend told me how happy she was to get married. Earlier, she and I had been talking about the concept of home, a concept I often touch on in this blog. Standing in her soon to be perfected gown, she radiated that bridal glow. But it wasn’t just the elegant bodice of the dress holding her up, it was a clear sense that she was soon to start out to find a new home with someone she already felt at home with, someone she loves. The best type of bodice is one that allows you to move, to live in a space that feels like home. Such a bodice provides support amongst people where home exists. This home can be found in an ever changing process comprised of searches, re-locations, journeys, hunting for somewhere to work from, love from, and search from again.
In one of the million and one romantic comedies I have seen, a character mentions that couples often get married when they run out of things to say to each other. In this same generalized vein, I would argue that instead, couples get married because they know they have so much more to say to each other and can’t wait to hear and to listen. I love when couples remark that their partner is their rock. I find in the best of cases, this means they are someone who truly listens and is always there to understand the other. One becomes a support to stand by, and know how to love continually because you have listened. This particular bride, I happen to know will always be part of that listening and loving, a part of that home that holds you up, that home you will always be loved in whether in a white dress or not.