Sunday, September 24, 2006

Riding the Brake

Recently, while driving home from the lab, I found myself behind someone whose brake light was illuminated. I slowed down, anticipating his obvious decrease in speed. However, the other car sped up, brake lights glowing red. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was riding his brake as he drove.

My first reaction was, What an idiot! It's so bad for your brakes to do that and it makes the drivers around you a little panicky (at least, it makes this one a little panicky). Then, I started to think about life; how some people live life full out, never using the brake to stop and reflect. Just going going going. Then, there are the people who never turn the car on. They just sit there, with the clutch pressed down, foot on the brake, in a perpetual attempt to choose where to go and what to do. Then there is that special group of people. The people who ride the brake. We floor it, pushing ourselves to the limit, while at the same time, forever stopping ourselves from really seeing where the car can take us. I am a part of that we.

For my whole life, I've made big decisions and done big things. I moved to New York to become an actor, never thinking about where I was going to live or if I was the right type of person to be a professional actor. (I've since concluded that I'm not.) But I never went on auditions. I never put myself out there to really fall. I stopped myself from seeing just how far I would be able to go. I took a great job at Chase, but didn't use all the resources at my fingertips. I've met amazing people, time and time again, but I've always considered myself unworthy and have therefore shied away from pursuing relationships or even banal conversations with them, particularly with those that I've met in the academic community.

Naturally, this led me to think about India. As my family will attest to, we didn't plan this trip to the best of our abilities. (Something which they like telling me.) We found a place for me to work and a school for Brad to attend. And then we just kind of...moved. The house wasn't sold. Our possessions were lugged to our parents' respective houses. We just did it. Jumped in with both feet and hoped for the best. (We've been very lucky that it has indeed worked out in the best way.)

And yet. I've been here for six weeks. I've bought my scooter, started my job and basically begun my life here in India. I wouldn't, however, make the claim that I'm living. Instead, I've been existing. Sustaining myself without indulging the curious side that brought me here to begin with. The gas and the brake were both hitting the floor.

The more I've thought about this, the guiltier I've felt. I didn't come here to live in a lavish apartment, hire a maid/cook and spend all of my time working. I came here to see how someone else lives. The purpose of our little experiment is to gain a better worldview. We believe that in order to understand the perspectives of the rest of the world, it is necessary to live with them. That was the greatest motivator in our decision to move to India. To better understand our "neighbor".

Last night, I released some of the pressure on the brake. There is a celebration here called Durga Puja, which is celebrating Kali, the God of War. (I'm sure Brad is going to correct me on that. I'm pretty sure that it's a tad more complex.) It began yesterday and will last for the next 9 days. There was a festival here at our complex. The open invitation that was posted on the bulletin board listed, among other things, the dress code: very traditional Indian garb, none of which we had. So instead, we stood on the balcony, watching the events below. While Brad wanted to attend, I didn't want to intrude, especially since we wouldn't fit the dress code.

The first person to urge us down was Sanjay, the head of security. He got my attention and waved me down (we live 5 floors up). I shook my head, no, while waving my hands back and forth, thank you. A few minutes later, I saw him sprinting toward the elevator bank. Within moments, our doorbell was ringing. Brad went to answer it and when he returned, he told me that Sanjay came up to invite us down. Brad, knowing my reservations, feigned an illness for me. We continued to watch and eventually we were spotted by a group of men. They waved at me (Brad hadn't noticed), inviting us down. I did my head shake and hand wave to beg off the invitation.

Then I thought about my brake. I realized I was doing it. I was in the middle of riding my brake. I can stand on my balcony and take pictures, but I can't go downstairs. So I bucked up, slipped into the most Indian shirt I have and headed down. Sanjay was remarkably excited to see us, and led us to the front of the crowd so we could see and take pictures. Needless to say, we couldn't have been more conspicuous. Or so I thought. We were down there for ten minutes when a woman approached and asked us to dance with the group. Nervous as I was, I kicked off my shoes and followed her into the crowd. (Yes, Kathrin, we have pictures. Brad has to upload them.) She taught me the very simple step and led me halfway around the circle. We came to a group of her friends, at which point she turned to me and said, "You've got it! Now keep going!" and walked away. My hands quickly rose to my shirt, tugging on the hem in embarrassment and fear. I froze, wanting to participate, but also wanting a guide to join me. I looked across the crowd to where Brad was standing and wanted to be holding his hand more than anything else in the world. I quickly walked across the circle and joined Brad. My foot was once again firmly planted on my brake.

Every Sunday, we've been attending a lecture series at Brad's school, focusing on religious issues, especially those affecting India. Today, Brad received a phone call telling us that the Islamic group that was scheduled to come had backed out. This was not surprising, as the school is run by the Catholic Church. With the comments that the Pope made recently, it isn't surprising that a Muslim would not want to make a public appearance at a Catholic university. Instead, the group was invited to a local mosque to discuss Islam. While Brad was eager to go, I was apprehensive. Islam and I have a checkered past. Part of it has to do with 9/11. (I'm horrified and ashamed to admit.) Part of it has to do with my ex-husband, who is from Pakistan and is Muslim. Part of it has to do with my time in Egypt. I love Islam as a religion, just as I love Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, etc. But I fear what Islam is doing in modern times. (I recognize that there is some hypocrisy here, as Christianity has been one of the most popular justifications for war.) And I can't help but be emotional when I go to mosques.

Brad and I spoke about my feelings and he encouraged me to join him. So it was with great trepidation that we went to the mosque. We were a few minutes late, due to some miscommunication. It was immediately clear that this session was to introduce the basics of Islam to the group. Brad and I, unlike much of the group, have extensively studied Islam. We know the history of the religion. We know the Qu'ran. We know the philosophies of the religion. We spend much of our time learning about other religions, and Islam has been no exception for us. We have friends who are Muslim and I, for one, consider Islam to be an extension of Christianity. So I was having trouble focusing on the discussion because I could answer most of the questions that were posited.

I looked around the group in my distraction and noticed that I was the only woman there. For some reason, the woman who is in Brad's class was not there. I was a tad dismayed and I instantly questioned whether I was meant to be there. In my distractions, I noticed two young girls at the window, who kept watching me. I smiled at them and they responded in kind. We went back and forth smiling for some time. I then made eye contact with one girl and she started gesturing at me. Brad leaned over and asked what she meant. I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing what she was trying to communicate. Yet in that moment, she ran in and sat beside me. Her friend was steps behind her, with two younger boys joining us.

I was so excited to be so trusted by these four children. We started speaking in hushed tones. We began with the banal. What is your name? Where do you live? Are you happy? Who is that man next to you? (This one was directed at me.) We then moved on. Why are you here? Why is the world unhappy? What are your religious festivals? They were enraptured by what I had to say. The boys would whisper questions to the girls, who would in turn translate. They asked me to their respective houses, which I declined, not wanting to intrude. I started discussing Jesus, who is known as Isa in Islam, explaining what he meant in Christianity. Another boy came over to listen to our conversation. When it was time to leave, they followed me outside and made me promise that we would come back. They told me where they lived and kept waving across the quad as I got on my scooter.

I don't think I have the words to explain what this experience means to me. I could have chosen to not go. I wanted to go shopping today for speakers and I did not want to go to a mosque. But I would never have met these beautiful children who found something special in me. I don't know if it was that I was a woman or white or friendly. It could be any combination of those things. But the affection of a child often means so much more than that of an adult. I could have kept my foot on the brake today, but I instead took it off, hurtled into the unknown and ended up floating amongst four glowing stars.

I know there will be more riding the brake moments. And I know that there will be moments that I wish I had held back. But I'll always have these children, reminding me that the great moments of your life will always come from flying blindly ahead. For that is when the unexpected happens. And the unexpected is so very sweet. So to my four new friends, I thank you for teaching me the greatest lesson that I've learned thus far on my Indian Adventure.


Penelope said...

What a truly amazing experience! Well done on removing your brakes.

E(Liz)a(Beth) said...

Thanks, man. It made me so happy!

Mom (Bannon) said...

Elizabeth, What a thought provoking entry. I have not been able to decide where I fit in the slot of 'braking' or 'unbraking, but it made me think about it :) I did learn some interesting things tho that I had not considered...I had not considered that the Islamic faith might be an extension of Christianity..knowing that in order to be a Christian one has to believe in Jesus (believing in Jesus would extend to his life, death and resurrection) and I did not know that that was their belief. How exciting that they do tho and His name (Jesus) is Isa (here that would be an abbreviation for Isiah..8th
century BC Hebrew Prophet) Is Isa an abbreviation in the Islamic faith or is it just Isa? (which means Jesus?) I have so many questions :) I know that Muhammud was the founder of Islam (7th century AD, and I have read a bit about him, but definitely not as much as you and Brad in your studies, so it is always intriging to learn more. Keep on letting off on those brakes...what good is living in a foreign country if you don't bring back a LOT of their traditions, etc.!! and you just cannot learn it all from Shyla staying in the flat, girl :) At least hang out with 'the children' (like I do) and you WILL learn, as they can be our BEST teachers & I say that without reservation....Can hardly wait for your next 'unbraking' moment :)

Brad said...

Great questions, mom!
Any Muslim will (or should) tell you that the most important prophet in Islam is Jesus. They believe in the virgin birth (it is in the Qur'an) and believe that he lived a perfect life. Some believe that he was crucified and resurrected, some believe that he ascended directly to heaven and still lives in heaven (like Elijah). Isa is not an abbreviation, it is the english translation of the arabic translation of the greek translation of Jesus' Aramaic name. In Aramaic (and in Hebrew and in Arabic), there is no letter "J". In Greek, his name is Iesous. We are certainly not experts on Islam, but we have read a good bit, so if you (any of you) have other questions, fire away.

Elizabeth - great post. The only problem is that since your posts are so impressive, it is very intimidating for me. Why don't you post a crappy one sometime to give me some confidence?

Kathrin Biemann-Monfette said...

Good story! I will remove my brakes today in class, in my hopes for auditions.

Anonymous said...

Look at you, bringing tears to my eyes from a millionbajillion miles away. And you said that you don't know poetry! You are a poet of the highest degree! This is one of the most beautiful, inspiring, wonderful things I've read in ages.
I've been doing the same exact thing at school - riding the brakes!
Oh Besh! I love you!
I wrote tonight to tell you that we watched Monty Python's Holy Grail tonight and I thought of YOU!

Anonymous said...

OH and ps it reminds me a little of one day when I was student teaching and these little first graders having all these different beliefs sharing (which started as arguing) about Jesus and (as they said) "the elephant god" and they were so serious and it was so great. For just that once, Sponge Bob wasn't at center stage! HA!