just right

On first-day-of-school-eve, I can’t sleep.

I suffer the tossing and turning and butterflies at the end of every single summer. This past summer was no different, except that the back-to-school jitters were coupled with new-to-India jitters and took over around noon instead of right as I lay down to sleep. I was at school twirling in the last minute craziness swirl and decided that an outing having nothing to do with school might be just the antidote I needed.  A new friend agreed to come along.

As we were leaving school to head into the maelstrom of traffic, we made a quick plan to head to one of Chennai’s largest and oldest temples. We cruised through the windy, dusty streets of Chennai in an auto-rickshaw, loudly sharing stories over the roar of the engine and the tireless honking.  We passed fruit stands, idli shops, storefronts with saris flowing in the breeze.  We dodged street dogs and motorcycles, large buses and lazy cows. And we arrived, in one piece, in Mylapore, at the Kapaleeswarar Temple.

The temple sits majestically in the middle of an old, bustling part of Chennai and dates back to the 7th Century. The entry way to the temple is a tall, intricately carved and painted tribute to one of the legends of Shiva.  Inside, we wandered by shrines to Karpagambal, Ganesha, Krishna. We ran into a local friend from school who circumambulated with us, whispering about each of the gods and goddesses and their relationships to each other. Together, we held our hands over the flame at Ganesha’s altar and were blessed in the pooja; ashes smeared on our foreheads, bells and horns, chanting and our reverent silence.

That August day seems like just yesterday and a lifetime ago.  It was a beautiful way to start this journey I’m on. I didn’t know it then, but good old Ganesha has been doing his thing for me ever since; placing obstacles and removing them and smiling all the way along…

Life has been kind of nuts. My back-to-school-new-to-India jitters have subsided and been replaced with LIFE. In all of the newness and excitement of change, it has been easy to get swept up and away in work and travel and visitors and friends and INDIA!  Since the moment I launched to be here, I have been flying.

And now it’s April and I can feel my body begging me to land.

I’m taking some time to just be still. To listen to the birds calling and the wind whistling through the palms. I am closing my eyes and spending time talking with my mom and remembering where I came from. I am conjuring up the feeling in my stomach I had when I was a shy, little curly-haired girl afraid to jump with the rope swing out into the water. I am remembering days when I was too reserved to say what I really needed, to say how I truly felt.

In this stillness, I am honoring those pieces of me; those pieces that remind me of how incredible it feels now to take the leap, to speak up, to show up just as I am. I have been holding on tightly to some old ideas for a long time. Now, in this new space, I open my hands and let those ideas drift off with love and compassion; they served me so well when I needed them.  They drift away from me, into the air, like ashes.

I’m thinking back to August when I stepped over the threshold into the temple. I remember the questions swirling through my head, the uncertainty, the newness of this chapter. I felt grateful that day to be in such a sacred space with someone who I knew, even then, saw me clearly.  I can smell the incense, taste the sweet pongal handed to me with love by Raji, feel the heat and dust of the ancient stones on the bottom of my bare feet.

That moment and all those before and since have led me to right now. And in this moment, as I slow down enough to just be still, I know everything is just right.

Flying is good. Landing is amazing.

kapaleeswarar

trainspotting

There are no windows on the unreserved cars of Indian trains. I mean, there are windows, but no glass. No screens. No barriers. There aren’t doors, either. Just openness. Windows you can stick your hands out of and feel the breeze as the train blasts through the palm-treed countryside. Doorless door frames open to the elements, wide enough for me to sit comfortably and dangle my legs off the side of the train car while Dad stands beside me looking out over the South Indian splendor.

We pass an old man with knobby legs and hardened bare feet herding goats in his dusty yard. A teenaged boy in bright red tee shirt talking on his cellphone leaning against a rusty train trellis. An open-air school house noisy with uniformed school children playing in the yard. We fly by an evening market selling Christmas ornaments, large paper stars and Santa masks. By shacks with thatched palm roofs and track-side tin roofed homes. A solitary old woman sitting on her step watching the train go by. A glowing girl walking home on the dirt path in a turquoise kurta and bright purple dupatta. The smell of rubber trees blows in, jasmine, incense, pee, bananas. We pass a man standing next to tracks with a beedi tucked in his mouth, wearing only a lungi, carrying a giant bag of rice on his head. A father lifting his baby daughter into her mother’s arms, fresh from bathing in the river.

From my makeshift seat I look out onto the homes of proud families, over rice paddies, fields of banana trees and think about the year that has flown by me…

A year of change and letting go. Of shedding layers of myself that I once needed that no longer serve me. A year of planning and realizing that no amount of time and energy and planning could have prepared me for what is unfolding. A year of long hugs. Of understanding, deep in my core, just how much love I have in my life. A year of laying myself bare to a new place, new people, new ideas, new challenges.

I feel a momentary fear of falling from the open train; the same feeling I had in my stomach this year when I signed my contract and when I said goodbye to my Classical community. I feel that same crazy, reckless feeling that I had when I sat eating bagels that last day with Carla and Bethany, when I hugged my family before leaving for the airport, when I let go of Reg’s hand.

This year of crazy, reckless, wonderful life.

I breathe deeply and know I am grounded right where I need to be right now. I feel a rush of gratitude. I feel free; no barriers, just openness.

This year of great gifts: Of new, amazing friends. Of wonderful, old friends who have made me feel close to home all the way over here. Of incredible, loving family. Of visitors! Of new experiences…

The train car is gritty from the wear and tear of years of passengers making their way from one place to another. WJ is tucked tightly in between four other passengers, the sun begins to set over the backwaters and Dad’s marigolds blow in the wind as our train makes it’s way forward.

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stepping away

I’m wearing close-toed shoes for the first time since I moved.

It’s still sandal weather here but I’m flying out tonight and it will be cold where I land. There’s sure to be a lot less traffic there and no cows lazing about in the street; possibly drivers who stop at lights and signal when they turn. I’m sure there will be lines at the cashier in shops and lots less garbage on the side of the road. I think there will be cafes galore, delicious wine from this region and that, croissants and more cheese than I can possibly dream of.

I will walk those streets and explore with a new set of eyes.

I’m pretty sure where I am going I won’t see crowds of schoolgirls on the street corner in the morning all dressed in plaid with looped braids and strings of jasmine in their hair. I won’t walk by beautiful, intricate kolams carefully drawn in chalk on the sidewalks lit with candles and adorned with marigolds and rose petals. Or women walking down the road in bright, beautiful saris, chattering in Tamil, on their way to buy bananas. There probably won’t be firecrackers blasting every night in celebration of a festival and surely there won’t be a tiny lit-up shrine to Ganesha at the end of the road smelling of freshly burned incense.

It feels weird to be leaving (even for just a few days) a place that, not so long ago, felt so weird to arrive in.

The last time I was out of India, I’d never been in India before.

Shoes and wine and cheese and orderly lines and things that made sense were my normal. I had never seen a man ride down the street on an elephant or cows lying in the middle of the highway or a woman with an incisor reaching down to her chin. I had never seen colors so bright or flowers so fresh, used with such purpose and sentiment. Before I came to India, I had never been this far away from home for so long. I hadn’t a clue about Hinduism or Jainism or Sikhism or how many religions and languages and cultures and traditions thrive in this country. I had never seen such extreme poverty and inequity. I had never been in a place where complete ugliness and pure beauty were so obviously enmeshed. I had no idea that I would have so many questions…

What was once my normal doesn’t feel so normal now. I am walking on new ground.

Some of the things that I thought I needed are no longer things that I need.  There are things that I thought that I knew that I just don’t know anymore. I have been cracked open and all of my insides are exposed and I can’t imagine what it would be like to put that all back in and tuck it away. I am, all at once, amazed and terrified.

Stepping away lends itself to seeing from a new perspective…

My desert-worn toes clad with Rajasthani rings wiggle inside of my shoes.

Change is complicated.

(Cheese is good.)

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strange little wonderful

When I was 21, I took my backpack and went to Europe. I was alone and trying to get comfortable with that feeling of being myself with total strangers. I tried in Brussels and wound up eating mussels with my mom and stepfather who happened to be in town. I tried in Munich while hoisting a stein of amazing beer at Oktoberfest with about a million other people. I tried in Salzburg while humming Doe-A-Deer as I skipped down the street with my hostel-mate.

The more I tried, the stranger I felt.

And I tried again in Vienna at the Wiener Staatsoper, grabbing a front row in the cheap standing area for an opera.  

At intermission, a fellow American tapped me on the shoulder and asked me how I was enjoying the show. She’d lived in Vienna for years and asked me to coffee afterwards. Before we ventured from the opera house, she offered to show me the best view in town and whisked me up the stairs to the balcony of the historic building. Together we looked out over the city, all lit up at night, twinkling and vast and for the first time in weeks, I wasn’t trying to be comfortable, I just was. 

We skipped coffee and, instead, ventured on a night walking tour of the beautiful city. We talked and talked and shared the stories of our lives. Mine was pretty short at that point… and then we parted with just her recommendation that I return to the opera tomorrow night. When I asked why, she said, “You’ll know when you hear it.” And, she was right. The Marriage of Figaro was on stage and my name was sung in opera all through the night.

It was a gift.

I was meant to be there that night; I offered to show some fellow standing strangers the amazing view and wound up traveling with two of them for months afterwards. They are dear friends to this day.

And, so I didn’t flinch the other night in Bombay when a stranger approached me on famous Chowpaty Beach amidst the crowd. He commented that I was brave to be eating bhel puri from the streetfood stall. Toothless and rocking an Alaska t-shirt, Madhu offered to show me around the beach scene and reminisced about his childhood days there and his daughter’s childhood days there. He asked about my family. We decided to walk together along Marine Drive after we’d watched the sun go down over the city.  Madhu is a retired teacher, a psychology enthusiast, a world-traveler, a retired Indian Navy man, a husband, a father, a walking enthusiast and a good, old soul.  He challenged me with ethical riddles as we walked, admiring the sea as we pondered choices and why we choose what we choose. 

When we got to the end of the 3 mile walk, Madhu offered to show me the best view in town. He took me into the Trident Hotel, a fancy, swanky type place and we paused for a bit in the lobby before venturing up to the very top floor where the lights were out. We each leaned up against the glass and peered out at the amazing view of the “queen’s necklace,” the lit-up waterfront that curves around like a sparkling jewel. We were silent and it was a gift.

Madhu told stories with great details just like my dad. He was born exactly one month to the day before my mom. I know his favorite places in the world and his deepest hopes for his daughter. He knows who I have left behind in coming here. And after lots of questions, he understands why I am here and what I believe about the goodness of people.

I told Madhu on the elevator heading back down about my night in Vienna. He remarked on how vivid the memory still is for me these 17 years later. I told him that I would always remember this, too.  

The moment a stranger becomes a friend is far too incredible a gift to forget.

new kid

I walk down a hall of palm trees to get to the cafeteria from my office at my new school.

Sometimes I see lizards. Or kids playing floor hockey in the outdoor covered gym. Sometimes I see Jeff in his cowboy hat speaking enthusiastically to an adorable group of first graders. Or twelve ladies with scissors cutting the little patches of grass by the performing arts center.

I walk down a hall of palm trees.

Designed to let air flow through the open campus, my new school is a lush, green, pristine oasis in the middle of  noisy, dusty Chennai.  The structures are simple and the grounds are gorgeous.

It is a truly beautiful place for students to learn. The kids are settling in to the new school year and the crazy marathon of school mania is in full-swing: spirit week is underway, progress reports are due, meetings, meetings and more meetings, homecoming this Friday, big swim meet on Saturday. School is school no matter where you are in the world.

I am still finding my bearings.  After nine years of being Glam and knowing the intimate details of my students lives at Classical, being new is…hard. I had grown used to having answers, my phone ringing off the hook, to walking down the hall and noticing a scratch in the paint that wasn’t there the day before.  I am used to knowing the name of every single kid in the building and likely knowing their mom’s name, their address and what their loves and hopes and fears were.

And now, I am new.

I ask a million questions and can go an entire day without my phone ringing.  I have a mere 104 students on my caseload. I am slowly learning each of their names and even know a thing or two about a few of their dreams for the future. I am Ms. McGlamery or Ms. Susannah or Ms. I’m-sorry-I’m-not-sure-of-your-name-yet and I speak too quickly and use too many colloquialisms and idioms for non-native English speakers.  I am challenged and on my learning-edge and so grateful to be in a space where I feel supported while I am completely lost.

I remind myself that I was once new at Classical.

I remind myself that my relationships with DaJavon and Jelan and Ashleigh and Alex grew over years, that I was just plain Ms. for months, that my kids were once kids that looked at me with skepticism and that Farron only started calling me Glam-Glam because calling me Susannah was awkward at school and we were too close for the whole Ms. McGlamery thing.

On the days when I am drowning in questions, I just need to sit for a while with students to find my footing again… because the new is kind of amazing. And the new kids…are totally amazing.

My kids have lived in places I dream of visiting: Kuala Lumpur, Sao Paolo, Budapest, Delhi, Seoul.  A majority speak more than one language; many are learning English while swimming in the deep end of AP classes and the many demands of a rigorous academic program.  Some of them leave school at 4:00 only to go to another school where they study their native language and prepare for college entrance exams until 9:00 at night before going home to do homework.  My kids are from Korea, Malaysia, India, England, France, Italy, America, Japan, Indonesia. They wave or bow or thank me each time they leave my office. They are vibrant and quiet and stressed and reflective and wonderful and trusting.

My new kids are slowly and quietly working their way into my heart. In them I see the same excitement for life, the same passion for learning and the same desire to trust that I found in my Classical kids.

Sanjay reminds me of Marco.  Naranjana laughs like Asha.  Dongsu makes me think of Marcel when he’d linger after reading group to tell me something sweet about his sister.

My kids in Hartford. My kids in Chennai…Lucky me to have all of these amazing people in my life.

Tropical, global-nomad Glam-Glam is in full effect.

LITB: from india to ireland

Dear Rayne,

Welcome to the land of magical creatures, delicious breakfasts, lush green landscapes, endless stonewalls and the nicest people on the planet. I am sure that Ireland will unfold itself to you without hesitation and you will soon let go of your new-to-town nerves and find your groove.

Breathe deeply in your new space.  Remember everything that you smell: the city smog, the ocean, the dusty roads. See with new eyes: the green, the crumbling castles, the thatched roof cottages. Sit for a while with people with sparkling eyes lined with crow’s feet and listen to their stories. Eat fish & chips out of a newspaper cone and drink warm Guinness and sing in a pub with new friends.

Savor every moment!

Explore!

Through it all, be yourself.  You are stronger than you know.  You are smart and funny and incredibly observant. You are insightful and kind and you show people your open heart.  You are brave, humble and quietly make your mark wherever you go.

There will be some moments where you will wonder why you did this. There will be some moments where you are surrounded by people and feel completely alone.  There will be some moments where nothing seems to makes any sense.  When that happens, hold that arrowhead in your palm and know that you have taken a step that feels so scary now but will surely change your life forever.

You have made a conscious decision to grow.

You have chosen courage over comfort.

Hold that arrowhead in your palm and know that you are snuggled in between continents by people that love you from the deepest parts of our hearts.

I am so proud, so inspired and so excited to hear your tales.

Love,

Aunt Saide

PS: Don’t forget, Love Is The Best.

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settling in

Last night I spotted a woman in a doorway on a crowded street. I was on my way to dinner with a few new friends; it was dark outside and the hustle and bustle of the crowded street made for a challenging walk. Dodging motorbikes and stray dogs, abandoned shoes, last week’s garbage and a man selling bangles on a blanket, I finally looked up as the lit-up doorway caught my eye.  The woman stood with her hands on her hips, glowing in a perfectly wrapped, bright orange sari.

She took my breath away.

Her stance, her sari, her serene presence shook me, and for the first time since I landed on July 24th, it hit me.  I am not just visiting India for a few weeks.

I live here.

I am buying food containers and setting up a spice cabinet. I am investing in pots and pans and garbage cans. I am in the beginning stages of friendships of all sorts. I am getting up early and heading in to work. I am starting to know which way to turn to get to a particular shop and how to get back to my house in the dark.

This weekend I visited friends who are stuck in the hospital with Dengue Fever. I had cocktails at the home of the U.S. Consulate General. I danced into the wee hours of the morning to 80s music and stood in the rain laughing with friends. I went to a school picnic and had a hot oil hair massage and walked the tree-lined streets of Besant Nagar. I ate paneer tikka masala and dal mahkni and checked out a handmade cane swing for my porch.

I wake up to the sound of waves crashing outside of my window. Crows cawing to each other and the street guards chatting away. I know it takes 17 minutes for the water to heat for my shower; I adjust my snoozer accordingly.  I know the morning guard wants to speak in English so he quickly says, “good morning!” before I can greet him in Tamil. I jump in a banged-up, bright yellow auto-rickshaw and watch with wonder as my driver weaves his way through the onslaught of cars and bikes and motorbikes, tuk-tuks and trucks. I pass the young guy with the two pugs and the smiling maid. I pass the ironing-wallah and the old man with a rose filled basket on his bike. I arrive at my new school, pour myself a cup of tea and dig into my work. I am starting to learn the names of my co-workers children. Sunita’s birthday is September 20th, Priya’s mother-in-law is staying with her for a month. I know if I don’t leave school by 4:30, I will be stuck in a cluster of traffic that will turn my 5 minute commute into a 50 minute commute. When I get home the guys will be on the beach playing cricket. The couples will be sitting in the sand watching the waves come in.

My calendar is filled with new student meetings, yoga begins tomorrow and I have dinner plans on Tuesday.

I am living.

wheels

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