90 days since leaving home. As I sit here, I have 12 days un-filled in my journal. Empty entries reflect busy days and nights. I’m cramming all that I can into these last few precious moments. My Bluetooth headphones blink a blue light every 6 seconds in the darkness because I have no power at the moment. Rocking WOTE “home we’ll go” makes me feel slightly conflicted inside. I really have explored a new home. A new place where I’ve found the depths of confusion and conflict among the burning, pure honesty of humanity and love. There has been absolutely no doubt that I will be back. There are magnets here for my soul. Some, people. Some, places. Some, thoughts. Some, revelations.
Am I ready for home? I think this weekend in Rishikesh provided me perfect closure.
The semester before completing our undergrads, Matt and I travelled to Europe for two months. We were burnt-out students looking for an escape and found an opportunity to re-connect as a couple. During that trip, we even decided we would start our family (you are welcome Ethan!), but before coming home we had one more stop: Ireland. Now, I’ve reflected on this before, but the green and the hills made me homesick after two months of travel.
Here, I repeated the exact same pattern. I knew I was, but it just couldn’t be avoided the way that my travels ended up being planned out.
So Rishikesh, the foothills of the Himalayas, with pristine Ganga water and abundant greenery brought me home again. But this time, I didn’t get homesick. Another home was built. An amazing spiritual path unfolded as all aligned synchronously. God has honestly provided for me so incredibly well on this trip. I have so much gratitude for that.
I said Rishikesh provided perfect closure, but, to be honest, I was a little bit sneaky to ensure it couldn’t get wrapped up completely… “Oh well,” I convinced myself, “next time!”
Remember that first blog post? Well today I got my haircut and giggled. Leaving as many pieces of you behind as you can, Ashley? I suppose I will have to ponder on this one once more: how long until the traces of me disappear? How long until the impact I had is erased from memory?
This crazy, indescribable journey has so many unwritten stories. Maybe one day I’ll share them with you. Maybe I’ll tell you about what caused the burn scar on my leg. Maybe I’ll paint you a picture of laugh-filled cartwheels in the garden. Maybe I’ll introduce you to the mother whose spirit I have met before. Maybe I’ll dance the red sunrise into your soul the way it entered mine. Maybe I’ll whisper of heartbreak and loss. Maybe I’ll sing ringing bells of worship and devotion. Maybe…
India enjoys keeping her secrets in plain sight. A friend explained today that, “everyone here wants their presence.” It’s true.
My stories will inevitably be shared without effort; you will see them imprinted on my existence. That’s how I wish to share my presence.
I am my final desi discovery.
I’ve had to take a step back from posting all my village pictures so that I could get down and dirty in data. This may seem like a downer, but I am drawing so much strength from the responses these women have given. Each is a beautiful reflection of a woman who is living, breathing, challenging, celebrating, loving and being. Some reflect strong resolve. Some unintentionally show vulnerability. All of them share the same theme: community. They love one another as they learn. It is so validating to know that the feelings I experienced so strongly were right; they are so very special. They love and respect one another. Beyond the materials provided and skills learned, these women are growing and imparting life’s lessons to one another and supporting change.
One woman explained how since participating the Gyan Chaupali programme she has decided to send her youngest child (a nine year of GIRL) to an English-medium school. Her husband has also supporter her by taking on more work so she can pause her livelihood activities and focus on her studies.
In another case, the opposition within the home was so significant the woman was considering not attending anymore. After discussing the challenges with her villages sisters, a group of women went to her home and convinced the family of the value of her education. She hasn’t experienced any problems since then.
I absorb all of these stories, recognizing the lives associated with each one of them. Their impact at this point seems immeasurable. How do I quantify or explain what has happened to my soul? I am challenged when I think of how much I have learned and wonder what I can give in return. Which is why I am in the office. Writing. It’s all that I have at this point, to convince the organization I am aligned with to make some small, yet meaningful changes for these women. They have given me a gift and I hope to repay them in some small way. Though ultimately, it is outside of my power to grant them the changes they seek for. But I will support them. I will believe in them. I will call them my sisters and continue to trust in the immense strength and solidarity of women who gather together. Who support one another.
I am with you, sister. Always.
I must offer an immense thank you to all the men in this world who support women. Here is Gunjesh, my supervisor, writing the final translation for my 34 questionnaires so I could analyze the responses. Gunjesh, your efforts are so appreciated. My journey would not have been possible without your support in the office. THANK YOU!
During a particularly tumultuous emotional period here, a friend encouraged me to offer compassion and love to everything that entered my life, be it in passing or not. He asked if I had ever reached that point in my life where I could offer love freely and without condition… and it was easy for me to identify it. Maybe some of you reading this were in my life at that time. I had been on a high from finding a faith I could believe and express my heart’s will in. I had the relative freedom of living outside of my parents’ home and a new city to explore and enjoy. I was challenged intellectually at school and emotionally making new friendships and bonds, though I was still naive in learning how to express these new feelings. I laugh now. One day I told a boy I had a few casual dates with that I wasn’t "in love with him” but that I loved him. Haha. Bad move Ashley. I never had a chance to explain that I felt like I could see the goodness within and was so happy to be able to feel that with him. I just felt love and shared it without reservation. Some could accept it. Some obviously could not. (No surprise on what happened in the above example!) But things changed, gradually, as I began to care about whether that love was reciprocated. My worth and love became dependent on who gave it back to me. I began trying to fill holes and "fix people." And so I find myself back in that space of love almost 15 years later. But this time, with no expectations.
There are plenty of instances here in India where the people I wanted most to like me, don’t. For perhaps the first time in my life I can say its ok. Not from a place of roughness or callousness. That’s easy. But I can say it’s ok for them not to give back while still offering love. It’s healing. It’s natural and honest to who I am at my core.
This lesson has perhaps been the most transformative.
Watch out world… I love you ;)
While I was in the early stages of preparing for this internship, a friend of mine was touring India with her husband and I nearly cried each time she posted: it all seemed so magical. Perhaps some of you reading this can relate. It is. It truly is. One particular place that stole my heart so many months ago looking through her pictures was the city of Varanasi, set on the banks of the river Ganga. I live a twelve-hour train ride (plus delays) away, but it was unequivocally THE must-see place on my list while I’m here. This past weekend, I got to experience the magic first-hand. Luckily I had some insider information letting me know that the city celebrates a special occasion, Dev Deepawali, that happens on the full moon of Kartika, 15 days after Diwali. The ghats (steps) on the riverfront are adorned by light earthen lamps and in honor of the river goddess. Oh my heck. Don’t you feel it? I certainly did, and I knew I needed to be there for it.
So away went Ashley on her first solo trip in India. This may sound silly, but it was important to me to honor this growth that I’ve been feeling with some space and solitude for myself. At the same time, I met a good friend there who grew up in Varanasi to accompany me after dark. Independence, not recklessness. It was the perfect balance. I walked 12kms on Saturday alone and close to the same on Sunday. Exploring at my own pace was therapeutic. Shopping without hassle was amazing. The spiritual reflection I could take for myself rooted all these feelings I’ve had for the past two months. It was special. So much more than that, but some things simply cannot be explained. The ritual bathing Saturday was something amazing to witness. The word frenzied doesn’t capture the essence of it, but it does encompass some of the pace and crowds. Yet there’s an underlying sacredness. Whether you believe it’s from the river or from the location itself, or from the thousands of worshippers bringing that energy with them, it’s a powerful force. Is it ever powerful and penetrating. Here is where those seeking release from reincarnation are cremated. Maybe it’s the constant reminder of death (the burning happens 24/7, all days of the year) that keeps the people here so laid back and in an atmosphere of enjoyment and pleasure. Sunday I returned to the same place at the Assi ghat, but this time there were only a handful of people. What a difference. I’m so glad I got to experience the two mornings, as each had their own sweet, special feel to them.
This trip. This trip was everything I needed it to be. Thank you Varanasi. I take with me all you have taught and know I will have to return to learn more.
We often use the phrase “it takes a village.” In all honestly, I thought I knew what this meant as a mother of five. Undoubtedly, it would not be feasible for me to where I am, doing what I’m doing, were it not for an incredible support team back home. However, I suppose my understanding has broadened a bit more through this experience from my encounters with the rural villages of Bundelkhand. Allow me to illustrate. In the villages I have visited, there are doors, but they are rarely if ever closed. Children, animals, families, friends and visitors have full access to whatever space they desire to occupy. Perhaps it’s because of the communal nature of living and the engrained culture of respect for the elders (in some cases, children) in the home, that this freedom is so widely explored. Sharing is another aspect that is so different from what I am used to. There are abundantly generous people I have met in the western world, but here the universality of the practice is what is most striking. When it comes to love languages, gift giving is probably the lowest on my list. I’ve had to conscientiously reconcile and permit myself to receive gifts from specific individuals in my life (dad being one of them), understanding that is how they show their love and support towards me. But that’s on a very personal, individual basis. To try to assume this custom myself goes against my grain and it’s a challenge for me receive gracefully (and remember to give things).
When I enter a village, I don’t see disparity or hopelessness. In fact, it’s often the exact opposite. The village community tends to one another’s unspoken needs. While collecting data for my impact assessment report, a grandmother stepped in to tend to the child of the interviewee so she could participate without distraction. Two boys ride home from school on bicycles hand in hand because they wish to share that connection with one another (and how beautiful it is in this culture that men touch one another so much! I would love to see more of this back home). Water, tea, peanuts, food of every imaginable kind is prepared if there’s the slightest hint (or not) of thirst or hunger. Twice I have been blessed with beautiful mehndi applications that surely would have been charged for in the market but offered freely, lovingly. Even at home, with the family who lives in the compound, a paper decoration was presented as project from school to decorate our humble room.
One coworker in the office explained to me how, once he realizes he has some food/snack in his pocket, he would check and count it out to share. His thought isn’t, I’ll wait until some people leave and then there will be more for us. He counts it out with the intention of being able to share as much as possible. I can’t even say it is generosity. It is more. Like what I experienced over Diwali. Perhaps it’s just love. Over the remainder of my lifetime I look forward to the multitude of times I will hear over and over the words, “it takes a village.” I will forever hold with me a much more significant feeling and attitude to associate with in. Love. A village is built with love and maintained through lasting, meaningful connections.
Oh, how I am going to miss these villagers. Even with my own tribe waiting anxiously at home for me, I am afraid I can’t replicate these same conditions in a world that isn’t trained up in the same way. If nothing else, I believe I am better positioned to recognize the right people and invite them into my daily life. I was getting close before I left. Optimistic Ashley has to find some kind of silver lining, right? But my heart is still breaking at the thought of leaving. Only 40 more days to go.
This post comes quite a bit after the fact and I hope I can recall it correctly!
Back in Canada, when I thought of India, crowds, cows and culture are what flood my mind initially. Diwali is right up there as well and I was so excited that my internship would fall over this holiday season. However, there were some unanticipated problems that included very little work happening and programing became sporadic. We’d drop in, but the program participants would be visiting a temple, or wedding festivities would be getting planned, or class would be cancelled for reasons we couldn’t track down. So while Diwali slowed the pace of work, it certainly added an element of excitement as the days drew nearer.
Our good friend Seema invited us to her family home in Dhule, Maharashtra. A whole new state to explore. This was my first experience on an overnight train, and while I was pretty unsettled at first, I quickly adapted and shut my sleepy eyes. We arrived and Seema greeted us with her brother and drove to alternating selections of YouTube beats. Over the coming days, five of the six children plus spouses, offspring and foreign guests (us) converged on Mommy’s home. Not only is Mommy accommodating and so kind, she is a great cook and prepared the best chai I’ve had in India. Honest to goodness, the best! I am so grateful for Didi taking me out shopping and sorting through the masses of fabric to select some really special sarees for great value. At one time, I watched the four sisters chatting and reconnecting and envisioned my babes doing the exact same thing. The strength and bond of family really is a miracle to observe. We had a chance to witness worship, celebration and blessing all in one trip.
Another don’t tell mom moment I don’t think my husband would believe: I set off fireworks. You can’t appropriately celebrate Diwali (according to me) without participating in that custom. In that spirit, I joined the children in reckless behavior (they assured me I would handle only the mildest of explosives) and still have all of my fingers and eyeballs. Did you know that Shakespeare invented the word eyeball?
I was really sad to leave the place that had become home for the past four days. It’s strange how I hadn’t realized how much I was craving family connections until that time. That chalks up a family-centered, fun-loving, distance-travelling Diwali. Maybe I’ll do it again next year?
I've written a short piece about my experience here on the Board Blog for SD47. You can check it out here:
This is what change looks like in celebratory form. Today, women from two villages and five rounds of programming gathered to receive their completion certificates from the TARA Akshar+ program. From a previous post, I shared the dedicated leadership of the woman who welcomed me here when I visited earlier. It was a treat to see her speak to the women and share what the changes mean for her and the community as a whole. Afterwards, a bright and beautiful young woman came and spoke to me. As a third-year student at the University of Agra, she shared her passion of returning to her village and making a difference in the lives of those living there. Inevitably, she has become a role model to many within the community. I should not have been surprised when I discovered that these two remarkable examples of strength and leadership were mother and daughter!
Of course, I can’t help but think of my own girls and the manner in which I raise them as confident, capable individuals with purpose. This sort of investment in self and others must be intentional to yield results. As naturally as so much of this line of thinking happens within our home, I want to ensure or conversations and actions align with who we are hoping to become, or better stated, uncover. The village of Punawalikala will always serve as a reminder to me of this principle: train up a child in the way she shall go and she will not depart from it. Be strong and passionate and confident my girls. I love you.
Well, an exciting email was sent at the end of day yesterday to all Development Alternatives staff for the sole purpose of sharing the blog post I had written.
Here is it if you want to check it out: http://www.perspectives.devalt.org/?p=2506
What adjustments in daily living have I become accustomed to after 41 days in India?
Let me start with the bugs. Now, growing up, I wasn’t much of an outdoorsy kind of girl. I enjoyed climbing trees and being outside with my dogs, but for my formative years of young-childhood, I lived in 100 mile house where it traditionally snowed on my birthday and Halloween costumes were designed around the same insulated, reversible sweater (orange- pumpkin, black- cat) or a full body snowsuit. Then I moved to the west coast. It should have been easier to enjoy the outdoors, and I did get out a bit, but the really messy camping for days, hiking and the like just never materialized for me. Since learning to love running in the beautiful trails of Powell River and gardening, I have probably spent more time outside in four years than I did in my youth. So yeah, bugs are a bit of an adjustment. The first night we arrived in Orchha we were greeted with swarms of what we affectionately call stink bugs. Within the first week, I made the mistake of opening the front door at night with a light on behind me inside. I have never experienced the kind of wind-fury these creatures could create. What makes me laugh now is my general level of tolerance. Oh, there are only two stink bugs in my sink this morning. Hmm, I wonder how many insects I will find throughout the process of handwashing my laundry today. Well, there’s a bug on my food; luckily it moves faster than my spoon. I’m not too sure if this counts as personal growth, but I’ll take it as a win.
Second. Showers. I posted a picture early on about my first bucket and mug “shower” consisting of about two gallons of water, max. It was surprisingly enjoyable. Perhaps since the alternative was a cold, traditional shower that I couldn’t help but turn off between soaping/shampooing because it was so frigid. So yeah, my kettle-warmed bucket water was heaven. It really helps me appreciate some of the simple pleasures I took for granted. I had that same thought before coming. My home is over 100 years old and we have yet to rip out the chipped, dirty-no-matter-what, blue bathtub our home came with upon purchase ten years ago. But I can jump into a shower and enjoy warm water, good enough to drink, at any moment I wish to. Showering is a process here. Long. Planned. Often accompanying laundry efforts. I really have a new appreciation for this simple task and hope I can help my kids understand and conserve what we enjoy so recklessly.
Lastly, power and the ability to connect. Within the first week of work in rural India, each power outage or surge would make me jump. Computers beep. Things make strange noises. It all can happen quite abruptly. Now, I can compose a reflective essay without missing a keystroke during the multiple outages throughout the day. It’s my new normal. The internet connectivity, however, is something I still get frustrated over. Signs of the times and how I really need to unplug a lot more. For instance, wifi is shut off outside of working hours. This isn’t too much of a problem unless people you wish to communicate with are 12 hours behind you. Today, I had to miss a school board meeting because there was nowhere to connect to. Even my cell coverage doesn’t work in my location. That’s the joy of rural living I suppose. I just have to take this experience for what it is and really re-evaluate the role of connectivity back in Canada. Eyes open on this one and what changes should be made when I get back home. If you’ve found some helpful strategies, I’d love to hear them.
There is so much more I have spoken to earlier, like the freedom to walk around and shop after dark and to be unassuming in the majority of life’s situations. It gets quite tiresome trying to calculate each person and each scenario all the time, so I have to be selective in this regard. I certainly don’t plan on loosing myself in this process. Just enhancing. That’s the short-listed nitty gritty. Maybe the rest will make their way to paper/screen eventually.
(Oh yes, and enjoy the picture of "Cami" my room lizard. I named her to keep Venise from killing her, but we are pretty certain after Venise threw a shoe in her direction one night that she lost her tail, Just this week our building helper ushered her outside with a shower squeegee. I'm a bit sad over the lack of her presence in my room.)