i came across a quote today from the East. the author
was not identified:
" mock not the deformed;
assume not a proud demeanor with the inferior;
hurt not the feelings of the poor;
be kind to those weaker than yourself,
and charitable to all beings."
the mother house of the sisters of charity, mother
theresa's organization, is about a half hour's walk from my guest
house. it is a walk through narrow streets lined with delapidated
buildings, kiosks of goods and food being prepared on the street.
i stop and buy a banana and 2 chapatis. people are also bathing
at water faucets, childeren playing and the day is unfolding within
india time frame.
i arrive at 7:30 am because i'm told i can talk with
a sister then about volunteering. in fact, by this time all the
volunteers have gathered for a complimentary breakfast of chai,
bananas and bread. there is a 6am mass for anyone who wishes to
what immediately surprises me is the number of volunteers.
there must be close to 150, folks from all over the world from late
teens to the 70s. i learn that the largest contingent at the moment
is from south korea with other orientals from japan and taiwan.
eventually i am able to speak with the sister in charge. she is
much in demand from all sides and always has a smile on her face
like she enjoys what she is doing. sister tells me i need to come
back at 3pm for an orientation for any new volunteers. but, she
says, here are 5 women from spain who are going to the facility
called 'prem dan' so you can go with them for today. sounds good
to me and i'll get to brush up on a little spanish as well. we take
a city bus down the bustling, crazy streets of calcutta, which is
an experinece in itself, get off a half hour later and walk another
10 minutes. prem dan is one of 7 centers here in calcutta. it is
a facility of about 100 adult men and 100 women. the residents are
here for various reasons and are either picked up by the police
or other folks and brought here. many come from around the train
station. about 95% have a physical/mental issue. jan, a long term
volunteer from holland shows me around and tells me some have tb,
aids and other diseases he'd rather not know about. i am noticing
that many have large open sores that constantly need attention and
dressings changed. some are in wheelchairs, some bedridden, some
my first task is to help wash clothes and blankets with about 10
other volunteers. of course there are no washing machines except
for us muscle powered folks. all by hand, washboard style. this
goes on for an hour and i notice a good spirit amont the volunteers,
laughing , getting to know each other. a few use gloves. i do not
but wonder about my sanity, my judgement and the posibility of picking
someting up. a few guys rinse everything in huge vats of water,
then we scrub and brush and beat them, and back for a final rinse.
while we're doing this, a couple of male nurses and assistants are
attending to medical needs, changing dressings, giving shots and
pills. we shave those who want a shave and give hand, arm and leg
massages with a shortage of baby oil. the men love this and are
so appreciative. i am massaging sudip, a man of about 35 who looks
70, very thin, mostly skin hanging on bones. i am massaging him
with my bare hands and again notice some other guys using gloves..
i decide that with 'all the possililities' it might be good common
sense to use the latex gloves available. since i haven't entered
sainthood with subsequent ammunity to disease!
giving this massage is quite instructive. 'buddha'
is often there as a delightful pest! i look at this man's legs and
catch myself hesitating to easily begin to touch them. they do not
fit the 'standard' for beauty, they are not soft and cared for but
worn with age and a hard life, with disease and sores, with a lack
of care. they are rough and scaley. i 'should' be loving and compassionate
and delight in giving to sudip but instead i notice my hesitation.
it is not obvious, but subtle, and i'm sure sudip does not notice
it but i do! how do i touch sudip and do i really want to? truthfully?
but i know one reason i'm here in calcutta and with the sisters
of mercy is not only to perhaps do something useful (questionable
at best!) but to be taught, to look into the mirror, to confront
my resistances and prejudices and maybe even move beyond them (one
thing which traveling potentally does unless we hold on too tightly
to our conditioning!).
sudip shows me through his gestures how he likes
to have his legs massaged. he likes me to take one of his calves
and twist my hands in opposite directions. he likes to feel it.
no light massage. apply some pressure, some muscle to it, yoder.
i do this and watch the pleasure on his face. it is always helpfu
when i ask myself what i would do if this were my son or daughter.
then i know there would be no hesitation. i would want this for
myself, probably even more so the worse and more untouchable my
condition would be. i would want to know that i am touchable,
that how i am does not create fear or a pulling away in another,
that i am somehow worthy or loveable, acceptable. this is all
swirling around in my head as i look into this man's face and
eyes. it alters my concerns, my attituces, my prejudices. and
i notice at one point as i relax and enter the process, there
is the return of a pleasant experience which has reoccured many
times in recent year, increasingly so. it always take me some
place that feels familiar but which i have never been able to
identify. i simply notice it. my acceptance of massaging sudip's
body gradually improves but i must acknowledge the resistance
does not entirely dissolve. evidentally i have much more to be
taught about love by these untouchable, these gurus, and i know
that resistances and prejudices, no matter how obvious or subtle,
relate to unresolved fears. these are not to be judged but simply
acknowledged and embraced as what is present in me now. this moment.
my impulse is to judge them, try to force them out of my psyche,
rationialize them away somehow. but i know this much. that will
only entrench and empower them even more. they need to be loved
with great compassion. the best and the worst. it is the only
chance for transformation. of all the possibilities in this life,
right now, sudip and the other residents, the poorest of the poot,
the untouchables, are my teachers, my gurus, those sent to further
awaken me if i will allow it, if i will not turn my back and retreat.
later we give the men a snack, and one to ourselves
too. chai, of course, and some sweets. later we serve them lunch.
a hearty lunch of rice and a mixed vegetable curry. most men can
feed themselves, a few need to be fed. part way through the morning,
the sister in charge, a lovely, kind indian woman, calls all the
volunteers together to clarigfy some concerns. she asks us not
to give any gifts to the residents, such as radios or even batteries
if someone does have a radio. some of the residents in wheelchairs,
because of being so confined and limited, do have radios whth
headphones. doing so can cause jealousy, feelings of rejection
and scrapes. so many have felt rejection on the outside and can
do so here also if they see others receive a gift and they themselves
do not. as an aside i almost volunteered how my dear mother would
have handled this had she been the sister in charge. she would
have said rather matter of factly and lovingly that if you give
one a gift you have to give the rest of the residents a gift of
equal value and desireability. such an approach would probably
have been equally effective! here in some cases there has been
theft. this morning the sister spent 45 minutes settling a dispute
because someone borrowed/stole a radio from a wheelchair resident.
however, i wonder if she is a certifiend mediator! and of course,
a radio played at night in a common room can be disruptive to
the other residents who wish to sleep.
after lunch and washing the dishes, the day ends
for us. i return to the mother house, however, at 3pm for further
information on the various programs in which one can volunteer.
i decide to spend some time at daya dan, one of 3 orpahnages.
at one facility only females can volunteer. it is for women who
have been prostitutes and/or in prison. there is a facility for
the dying and another for more serously physically/metally handicapped
adults such as cerebral palsy. another day i take a bus to daya
dan and try not to drown in the air pollution and then take a
tuk tuk, a 3 wheeled vehicle that is equal in its contruburion
to haze in the atmospehre, the blackening of one's face and the
on going ritual of expelling great fryable oysters!! enough of
that for the moment. this actually is my second day here and i
feel a bit more at home with the children and the routines. when
i come to a little blind boy whose name is prince, i speak to
him and touch his arm. he immediately responds by wanting to be
held. as soon as i pick him up, he wastes no time in tightly wrapping
his thin legs around my waist and does the same with his arms
around my neck holding on for all he is worth. i am captured!
so i hold prince a long time, rub his back and speak to him with
words that i hope are soothing and enouraging. whether or not
he understands them i do not know. some of the children who can't
talk at all are able to understand.
eventually prince relaxes his hold and we sit on
the floor still in a hugging embrace. at one point i am able to
look into his face and eyes which have no visible eyeballs. here,
too, i find it initially easy not to look , except fleetingly,
into the faces and eyes of theses children. there is something
uncomfortable about 'facing' and 'incomplete face' or a head held
at an unusual angle, eyes rolled back, a hand that is held or
is being shaken in fromt of a face which has eyes that do no see.
again these reactions are more on the subtly level. i've had years
of practice hiding my reactions from persons around me. as a minimum
it is a reminder of what is considered imperfect, and a reminder
of a child who doesn't know his biological parents, who might
well have been abuse, neglected or deprived in one way or another.
(prince has what appears to be a permanent knot on the one side
of his head.) certainly i feel my own helplessness, my lack of
comfort and love. experiences like this move me beyond theories
of compassion and unconditioinal love and acceptance to 'what
on earth am i going to do right now?' what am i afraid of, again
resisting? what is the fear that makes me momentarily hesitate
to take these children in my arms and fully embrace them. well,
it's true, i might get pissed on, spit on, shit on!
but today i look more into their eyes and faces,
watching and wondering what prince, for example, is thinking.
expecially when he appears to drift far away. is there some painful
reminder or memory that is too much to integrate and therefore
prince must go off to a safer place where there is no pain. i
wonder. there are 15 boys here with physical and or mental handicaps.
3 are blind, 2 in wheelchairs and most are developmentally/mentally/physically
delayed with a few having behavioral characteristics of authism.
thery're all sweet kids and most love to be touched, held and
played with. they're given a morning bath, we dry them off and
cloth them. then basically we spend time with them, perhaps play
or just sit with, talk and sooth the child. some children when
left alone sit and rock back and forth. mongo is 12, requires
a wheel chair and is amazingly articlate in english, is a real
gentleman the way he handles himself, asks for what he needs and
always speaks with such gentleness and respect.
other long term volunteers are great models. they
willingly and unhesitatingly engage the children, kiss them on
the head or cheek. actually the children are bathed twice a day.
their clothes and bedsheets are washed, their toilet need are
addressed, their hair is kept short and medical need are met so
there really is not much to be concerned about. any uncomfortableness
or hesitation has to do with my own issues (duh!) around what
is comfortable, what is acceptable, what is perfect and my discomfort
in looking at all this within myself. 'life is done with mirrors!"
so on this second day and being more aware of these issues, i
am able to more openly and willingly engage these precious diving
on a lighter side, sunnil, another 12 year old in
a wheelchair and quite small for his age, delights in going around
doing wheelies and then laughing hilariously. another blind boy,
rakesh, loves to jump and bounce. when i dress him after his second
bath of the day and put him down for a nap, he doesn't stay there
but momentarily. he is soon up, holds onto the bed rail and bonces
up and down, stopping only long enought to hitch up his pants,
hardly missing a beat and then continues with his feet often being
the highest part of this body. his face presents an entirely gleeful
expression full of words he'll never be able to express verbally.
one might consider these little ones to be the unlikeliest
of gurus but then again is it really that unlikely? hardly!
'mock not the deformed;
assume not a proud demeanor with the inferior;
hurt not the feeling of the poor;
be kind to those weaker than yourself,
and charitable to all beings.'