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Belated Subho Viswaskorma puja!

workers unite! (to party and drink)

workers unite! (to party and drink)

I am fairly certain I misspelled that particular god, but you know how certain themes keep appearing?

I was very excited to have come to Kolkata coincidentally just in time for Durga Puja (Durga is the goddess of good over evil). I came in September 2006 with my parents specifically because neither my mother nor I had seen Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, ever before.

Not knowing the exact dates, I couldn’t figure out why in all these small pandals (temporary religious structures) the fashion this year seemed to be for Durga to wear a mustache and dhoti. Turns out there’s a festival a little earlier than Durga Puja in honor of Viswaskorma–the lord of the world of work. (Possibly also the lord of bangla, the local hooch…apparently this is a festival when the workers really unwind.)

You’ll see an image of a pandal for the celebration in this post. It’s celebrated by the workers–so you’ll also see an autorickshaw all decked out for the celebration. Reena Bose said when she was in college, they put a bindi and garland on the mimeograph machine to honor its work on Viswaskorma puja.

There are three reasons this festival is striking to me:

1) Iona was created in part to honor labor as holy and to reclaim the church as a place that recognized labor as belonging to God, because the church had become too removed from the lives of the working poor in Scotland (and everywhere else), so this is a repeated theme in a lot of ways.transport decked out

2) The low-wage manual labor force in India is HUGE, and largely taken for granted. There are lots of things that we use machines for in America that, if those machines were more common here, another family would be without a source of income. Watching a building go up means watching men dig trenches and carry thatched baskets of bricks up five stories. Yesterday I saw a man pulling a rickshaw with husband, wife and two children all squeezed in. This wasn’t a motor rickshaw or a cycle rickshaw. Kolkata’s one of the only cities that still has hand-pulled rickshaws. Because the labor pool is so big, this type of work is taken for granted. (In the same way that America takes for granted the migrant farm laborers and dishwashers at restaurants etc etc). I love that the workers have time to recognize themselves as part of God’s work (I don’t know whether middle class hindus get into this particular puja or not), and that even the machines that aid the work are honored.

3) West Bengal is a communist state. (For how long is in question; they seem to be losing power after forty or more years of control.) This means political advertisingthat workers’ rights are embedded in the political rhetoric of this area, of the opposition as well as the ruling party. This rhetoric sometimes comes at a cost to the workers as well as to progress in West Bengal (although be it noted that, much to my chagrin, there is now a McDonald’s on Park Street. It was the one place in Kolkata I saw multiple white people. Why come to India to eat at McDonald’s?! Note to my family: when you come to India, I’m not taking you to Bengali restaurants. In exchange, I won’t eat at McDonald’s on Park Street.). As Viswaskorma Puja fades into the distance, I find myself wondering what kind of god it will take, what kind of political leadership it will take, what kind of revolution it will take, to create health and decent conditons for the people whose lives are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes said in the Leviathan.

And what kind of puja will we have then?

flashback–art in Madrid–la quinta del sordo

The art in Madrid sticks out as the most remarkable part of my trip. I’ve seen a number of Spanish artists out of context, but seeing them together, in the context of the land that shaped them, the art made sense in a new way.
In particular, I knew virtually nothing about Goya’s black paintings until the end of my visit to the Prado. I had seen Saturn Devouring His Son before, but I hadn’t realized that it was painted as part of the collection of paintings Goya created and surrounded himself with after moving into la Quinta del Sordo (villa of the deaf man), named for the resident before him, although he was also deaf by then. He was also anxious, fearful, cynical, and aware of the potential for evil all around him.
One picture in particular that sticks out is “Fighting with Clubs.” 

Foreshadowing the violence of civil war in Spain and sitting in judgment of provincial clashes, he originally painted the two men with their legs free of the mud that he eventually adds….talk about symbolic of his cynicism about humanity.
I think what I’m captivated by is that no matter how cynical he might be, he still painted these cautionary tales, as if he felt an obligation to give his people a chance to avoid the path they seemed inevitably bound to.
Look up Goya’s black paintings. Imagine a soundless world. And imagine having witnessed Bonaparte’s attack on your city, your kinsmen’s heroism and their rapid destruction as well as the seething tensions in the city ever after. What would you paint?

First day in India

(written Wednesday, posted Thursday….this might be how most of my posts go from here on out)

Just before I arrived in India, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s *Outliers*. (Note of warning: don’t read the chapter on cultural reasons that planes crash WHILE FLYING OVER THE OCEAN….I kept praying, “For all their faults, God, make sure that British Airways communicates in direct and assertive fashion so that the plane lands safely.”)

Gladwell’s premise is that there’s no such thing as a self-made person. Our situations, our context, and certainly our drive equip us, as does the sheer luck of circumstances. In the list of the 100 richest people in all of history, 25 were American, and of those 25, 14 were born in the same 5-year period. (Yup, if you want to express gratitude for Carnegie Mellon University or Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, now’s the time to thank that remarkable window of opportunity for profiteering.) That combination of drive, circumstance, resources, context and particular windows of opportunity are what make for the statistical outliers we lift up in society. (Bill Gates, for example, and Steve Jobs and a really cool guy called Bill Joy who rewrote linux or unix or something like that and gave us a lot of the programming that brought us the internet….btw, did I mention they were all born at the same time, too?). And hard work turns out to be a better indicator of success than sheer aptitude, which is good news for all of us with less than a 150 IQ.

So what does all of this have to do with India?

When I arrived in Kolkata (and still got overcharged even though I took a prepaid taxi; go figure), my first stop was to meet the person I’m staying with, Reena Bose (I call her Reenapishi, or aunty on father’s side, even though there’s no blood connection between us, because she helped me navigate my three months in Kolkata as a volunteer at Emmanuel Ministries back in 2003, and her family adopted me as their own while I was here). I met her at the nursing school she has established between the last time I saw her (2004/2005) and now. Yup, as in from scratch. As in, graduating their fourth class and about to become financially independent.

Reena Bose is a registered nurse and very high up in the Church of North India’s Synodical Board of Health Services. She lives in an area of Kolkata called Behala, and her home is about ½ mile or so from the Oxford Mission Campus. For ten years, the orphanage space has lain empty (lush and green with a fish pond and jackfruit, mango, coconut, betelnut, banana and pomelotrees grow in abundance, and a slice of tranquility 5 yards from the chaos of the main road running through Behala to the shopping area of Sakher Bazar). She convinced the Diocese of Calcutta to help fund it, took out a sizeable loan herself, and built up a nursing program in the space.

Oh, and the students can help themselves to any of the fruit for free, except the coconuts, which require someone climbing a tree to cut down the young ones—those are five rupees each (on the street these days they’re up to ten rupees, or about 20 cents). I bought 12, which are sitting in my room waiting to be punctured so I can drink the juice at my leisure. It may not be mango season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be happy to be in India, hot humid weather and regular power outages notwithstanding.

My original point is that the Sister Florence School of Nursing is making a big difference. And it appears to have sprung out of nowhere. And it’s driven by committed teachers and generally willing volunteers (I watched Reenapishi demanding that her mechanic donate some work to the school since she was a longtime client—they finally agreed he would install backup generators in some of the rooms and the main office). And it’s the vision and passion of Reena Bose that brought this project into existence.

And that happened, Gladwell might argue, because of the class and religion she was born to and parents who didn’t believe she should dream less because she was a girl, and lots of remarkable mentoring and training, and decades of work helping to set up smaller but similar projects in the field to train health aides in rural areas and lots of time spent mastering the art of nursing administration (Gladwell also argued that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill—turns out Mozart was a bit of a late bloomer, having logged in more hours than that before he wrote his first masterpiece).

So that’s my first reflection on India.

Gladwell’s ultimate argument (and this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book; he’s much more compelling and engaging than this summary might suggest) is that if more people were given more access to opportunity, we might end up with more “outliers,” or the outliers might even someday become the norm. How great to experience one of those outliers living into the goal Gladwell articulated, reducing the number of outliers in the world by making them the norm.

Now go out and buy that book. J

the best ever tour of Madrid

Last night I became a member of the Wellington Society.

I know, sounds alarming, right?

Well, my Time Out guide suggested a couple of slightly offbeat tour options, and described the Wellington Society in these terms: If you miss your mad British uncle and want a surrogate who really knows his history, join the Wellington Society (joining is the only way to get a tour). Stephen Drake’Jones warns that if you don´t like wine and history, this tour is not for you.

I confirmed with him by phone, met him at Plaza del Sol at 8 PM, gave him my 50 euros, became a card-carrying member of the Wellington Society, and promptly sat down with him for a glass of white wine and the best empanada I´ve had in my life before the tour started. He quickly sussed out my personality (I was the only one on the tour, although generally there´s a minimum of two), and decided to give me the Bloody Madrid tour (perfect for the Inquisition obsessor), complete with tracing the steps of the assassin of the duke de someone, a potential threat to Philip II (or was it Charles III? the wine might have muddied my recollection a little).

Phenomenal, dramatic tour that included tucked away local tapas stops for nibbles and drinks as well as riveting history so that as I wandered Madrid today, I saw it in a slightly different light. And I´m on my way to pick up some cheese and pate from the place he insisted was the best deli in Madrid so I can have a peaceful picnic dinner on my last night in town. (This to balance out the one high-end meal I allowed myself at lunch, which was crashed by these three wealthy and banal kids travelling the world until one of them goes to Canada to heli-ski….I kid you not; his dad texted him during lunch to get it on his calendar for November. It apparently involves a helicopter and skiing, as the name suggests. Just a note: they claim that group seating at big tables is a charming European tradition….but not when you have a good book that you can´t read because your companions are busy talking about how they´re having beer for breakfast, even though it´s 2:30 in the afternoon.)

They say you can´t understand Madrid without seeing a bullfight. I´m pretty comfortable leaving Madrid having loved it but not understood it.

I still owe you a report on Goya, Guernica, and I have to add to it the Hopper painting ¨The Hotel Room¨ which I had to walk away from at the museum today lest I start openly weeping. Who´d have thought–in Madrid, moved to tears by an American original. God is good.

Plaza Mayor

How alarming and humbling to stand in a square so alive, where bullfights and executions competed for most popular attraction a few hundred years ago. I´ve been reading a wonderful book with excerpts of people´s experiences in Madrid over the last 500 years. One British visitor in the late 1700s complained that the sight of the flagelants crossing the square during religious festivals was really irritating. I believe public self flagelation was outlawed in 1782, so it´s no longer an issue.

That said, what a riveting city with such rich and disturbing history and vibrant art. Next post, Goya´s black period, 2 May and 3 May 1808, and Guernica, for which you can forgive Picasso any of his late-in-life commercialism.

final reflection on Iona (for now)

This is a picture from Rachel’s camera of part of the group as we were leaving Iona on the ferry to Fionnphort (before the bus ride across Mull to Craignure before the ferry to Oban before the bus to Glasgow–this is a day-long affair). As is always the case with retreats, the people make or break an event. One of our group members this week, Ian Campbell, goes every year, and he said the group doesn’t always function this well. On the first night, I looked around the refectory and thought, “What could I possibly have in common with anyone in this room?” But sure enough, as lives unfolded, everyone had something to teach me, from the public health professor to the woman who organized a choir for homeless people to the Swedish pastor who pursued ministry as a second career, having been told she couldn’t as a woman the first time she tried. You don’t get a dynamic, compassionate, willing to ask hard questions group every day.

What’s remarkable about Iona is that as ancient as it is, the place also feels very modern (or postmodern, if you will). It felt a little disconcerting at first, but it was intentionally designed as a living, breathing community dealing with the lived experiences of people right here right now, always. So even if it’s cliche, I think it might be by design that the people end up being the most central part of the Iona experience. And I was incredibly fortunate to get to learn from all of them.

Next report– Madrid sans bullfight.

A tie between Iona and First Christian Church of Oakland

I was really inspired by this cross in a tucked away corner of the Abbey. It made me feel connected to my home church, which is discerning its call to be a church oriented around a vision of peace. It was a reminder to me of how big that vision is, even though we’re trying to keep focused on the implications of that in Oakland. What a gift to know we do not stand alone in that process of bringing about God’s peace in the world!