How do you remember?

I am writing tonight from a couch at the reception of the hostel where I am staying in Berlin-- an area that doubles up as a nice bar/ hangout space. Behind me, some people are watching a football match projected onto the wall with more enthusaism than I have ever fully understood (I think it's cool, though). Across from me a man is on an intense looking video call, and the room is full of people drinking, talking, writing, watching, being-- each in their own language, each with their own drink (mine is a giant glass of terrible red wine!), and there's something I love about that, that way of being together without necessarily interacting with each other. But that's not what I wanted to write about.

I spent today walking around central Berlin, including parts of the historical city, and I've been trying to tie together the experience in my head. in 2014, I was a teaching assistant for a class on Memory and Reconciliation at CONTACT South Asia (a wonderful peacebuilding program I have been involved with since 2013). We were working with a group where many of the participants had lived through civil wars, and we were trying to understand together how the act of memorialising, how the way we frame our past conflicts, can influence peace or conflict processes in the future. We looked at many memorials in that class, some celebrated ones and some that are acknowledged as deeply problematic and sowing the seeds of further conflict (a case in point would bee the Sri Lankan memorial which is, for one, known as the "Victory Memorial" rather than something like the "Peace Memorial", so it's debatable whether it was even conceived of as a peace-building measure or simply as chest-thumping). At any rate, we had talked extensively about the way Germany has chosen to memorialise its own dark history, very publicly, and in so many different ways. I was curious to see how these spaces make me feel in the flesh after all those abstract conversations about intention and execution, so I wanted to start my Berlin trip there.

I had already made plans to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with a dear friend later in the week, so I decided to start my day today with the Berlin Wall memorial. I thought this would be a small stop, but I ended up spending over an hour there, trying to take it in. You can find thousands of images of it online, but here's one of a small section that might help you understand this post better.

Okay, so in this one, just notice a few things: in the foreground you see a wall with lots of little "windows"-- each of those has a photograph of one person who was killed while attempting to cross the Berlin wall. A few windows have ben left blank to allow the possibility that there were others whom we do not know about, and to allow the possibility of their inclusion if we find out about them. Behind that, in the white with lots of graffiti is part of the remains of the original Berlin wall as seen from former East-Germany. And in the right corner, the rusting steel beams are how they have chosen to mark the parts of the wall no longer exist-- an interesting choice because they actually feel like the most menacing part of this stretch, and yet they allow a glimpse from each side into the other, which is also part of the metaphor of this memorial, I think. This photo is one tiny part of a long stretch with lots of photos, audio-video stopping points, sculptures, and more. A truly impressive amount of time, energy, and resources have gone into reminding the city of this past, into making sure that it is commemorated and acknowledged right in the heart of modern Berlin.

I kept wanting to be moved by it. But somehow, I just wasn't.

Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot today about that period of Berlin's history and realised that our high school history books kind of forgot about Germany once Hitler was gone -- the Berlin wall showed up in our history books more as a metaphor and less as an actual wall. It was interesting (in a morbid kind of way) to watch some of those video interviews and try to imagine this place in another time, and I gained a lot of information, but I struggled to relate to it in a way that meant something.

Then, I overheard a conversation between a British man and his 8 or 9 year old son that somehow put this in perspective. Struggling to explain the political historical connotations of that spot to his child, but very much wanting him to understand, the man finally told him "If we were standing here 30 years ago, at this very spot, we would have been killed. They would have shot us just for standing here." The boy's eyes widened a little, and he asked "And we are sure they won't any more?".

In the boy's wonder, in the hint of fear, and in the father's reassurance, I saw a bit of what was impossible for me to feel otherwise in the middle of this beautifully sunny and grassy spot full of art, this very very sterilised memorial where some people were walking dogs or going for a run, and where tourist groups hung out chatting-- the possibility of violence. That imagining made the site more meaningful, made history more current, just for a moment.

Later as I continued to hobble around Berlin (I'm still walking with a cane because of all the foot drama I've mentioned before), I found the other piece of this puzzle. My foot was starting to hurt, and I was just looking for a nice cafe where i could rest for a bit over a cup of coffee and a journal entry, and my cane stumbled upon this.

We had talked about these too in that memorialisation class-- the "Stumbling stones" memorial. Across Germany (and other parts of former Nazi territory too, 22 countries in all by now), these little 10 cm by 10 cm brass cubes commemorate the homes or workplaces from which victims of the Holocaust (mostly Jewish, but also other groups persecuted by the Nazis) were captured, committed suicide, or forced to emigrate-- basically, it seeks to commemorate the last place that these individuals chose to live in. Each plate tells you the names of the people, dates of birth, the date of the deportation, and the date (if known) of death. In the stones above, there was one eight year old and one twelve year old, two people in their thirties (presumably the parents?), and someone in their 60s. At the bottom, for each of them, it says "murdered" and in some cases gives one the date of death. That's it. That's all we know about them now, along with the sites where they lived, loved, fought, worked, dreamt, feared.

Some people find this memorial offensive, this idea of literally walking over those names and dates, as if it were an ordinary thing. For me, that was precisely what prompted a sharp intake of breath, the ordinariness of it. That was what made me forget my hurting foot and my search for a cafe, look back up at this building, try to imagine it in a different time, try to imagine this street in a different time, ask a hundred questions in a second about what happened here, how we allowed it, whether it could happen again here, or back home, and so much else. It brought the history into this living breathing moment, wrote those difficult questions into the sidewalk, made you mourn for these individuals and the lives they could have had-- the life this city could have had.

I thought back to the Windows of Remembrance at the Berlin Wall memorial, which also does remember individuals, including with photos. I realised that for me the difference was that there, they were memorialised at the site of their death; here at the site where they lived their lives. There, if you didn't want to think about that part of your history, you just didn't go into that ground; here, you will literally stumble upon it everywhere this tragedy took place (the project is still ongoing). Above all, there, the only thing that connects those people, and therefore their only identity, is that they were killed for trying to cross the wall, but here they are connected as families, as neighborhoods, as familiar categories of people-- as something I can imagine, and it is the imagining that breaks one's heart, forces the difficult questions, and hopefully strengthens one's resolve "Never Again".

Week One at Akademie Schloss Solitude: Creating the mahoul

Last week, I began what promises to be one of my most interesting artistic adventures yet -- a writing residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. The Akademie is located in an 18th century hunting castle on the outskirts of Stuttgart, and I am here alongside artists from around the world -- writers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, performing artists, web-based artists, architects, and more -- for 6 months of silence, community, conversation, and hopefully lots of new writing. I have never before taken 6 months, or anything more than a month, really, to just focus on being an artist, so this prospect is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But mostly, very exciting. One of my goals during this period is to maintain a weekly blog to reflect on my artistic process as well as my time in this campus/ city/ country/ continent. In the past, I have often wished I had documented some of my journeys better, because even though I keep up my daily journaling and my nightly gratitude log while I'm away from home, those tend to reflect mostly my inner neuroses, dreams, and joys, and very little of the externals worlds I pass through. I am hoping that the public-private nature of a blog will allow me to do a little of the latter. It is also, of course, just a great way for me to stay in touch with folks in faraway homes who might want glimpses into my life here.

So, I completed my first week at Solitude yesterday, and I am finally settled in to my studio apartment here. I grew up with an architect mother, and I inherited some of her passions about space and how one shapes it. While a lot of kids dream of the big mansions that they will one day live in, twelve-year-old me wanted nothing more than to one day have a studio apartment. There was something about the particular challenges of one large space that needed to br broken up into sleep/ work/ hang out/ cook spaces without any walls that particularly interested me. I had forgotten this part of myself until I landed here into what initially felt like a too-large, too-grey room for cosiness.

Over my first three days here, I did not unpack my suitcase because i wanted the furniture to remain light enough to move around over and over. Despite a significant limp thanks to a corn that has been bothering me for months now, I managed to move all my furniture around, closets and bookshelves included, three times before i found the version I was satisfied with -- a small table by a window in one corner for work, a larger architect-style table by my bed that doubles up as a nightstand and a space to sketch or do other larger work, another single bed dragged across the room under another window and covered with a colourful bedspread to create a home-like divan, a lovely armchair pulled next to it for a seating L, a third desk dragged into my kitchenette for counter space, and closets and bookshelves sitting around it. Then, the colour: little colourful postcards to brighten up overwhelmingly grey closets, a tiny rug to tie the seating L into one space, a collage of photos from home to brighten up the wall near my bed, fairy lights over one window, lovely little ceramic ware from the local flea market, and a bright red dupatta over one window to soften the grey light of German winters. Finally putting up binder clips on the wall with adhesive putty so that i can clip papers up as needed without worrying about bulletin boards, and then two large sheets of chart paper on the wall next to it because i brainstorm better standing up than sitting down. A little plushie of my favourite cartoon character, handmade mugs I brought from my studio in India, and a colourful Rajasthani mobile later, this room finally feels like me. Now I can get to work here!

I think this sounds like an excessive amount of time and energy spent decorating to some people, but I am becoming more and more aware that this is part of my artistic process -- creating spaces that welcome me, that reassure me, that encourage me. Add in the soft strains of Shiv Kumar Sharma playing on my portable speakers and lavender-grapefruit oil burning in the ceramic essential oil burner i found at the flea market, and I am immediately more energetic, more present, more able to create. Here's to the next twenty three weeks of creating now :)

The Beds We Lie In

It has now been seven weeks since I slept in my own bed. Five of them absolutely wonderful, two of them rather stressful -- seven very full weeks.

As I think back, I realize that the single thing that set my recent five-week vacation apart from every other vacation I’ve taken is simply that this one wasn’t planned around places; it was planned around people. I didn’t make a to-do list; I made a to-meet list. Over the month of May and running into early June, I visited about 40 friends and acquaintances in 10 cities, and in the process was able to spend real, quality time with at least 20 close friends. In each city, I asked the person/ people I was visiting to take me to the places they love there, or I simply hung out at their homes and in the neighborhoods, catching up over walks, meals, and slumber parties. I experienced in this month so much love and warmth that it has made the last couple of weeks of caring for a very ill family member much easier than such an experience should be. People talk of safety nets; I feel like I am carrying one of those acrobat trampoline things in my stomach -- the moment my heart starts to sink, it bounces against that trampoline and springs right back into action.

They say that we make the beds we lie in. I am grateful, humbled, and proud this month to realize that the beds I’ve been making are warm and welcoming in the most important of ways. So let me tell you about these seven weeks by telling you about some of the beds I’ve been lying in.

There was the clickety-clack futon in my aunt’s living room in New York City, where I spent so many nights during various family emergencies and celebrations during my grad school years -- where a beautiful white cat sat on me every morning as a wake up call. There was the mattress on the floor of the American friend in Brooklyn, who hasn’t bought a bed yet because she moves to graduate school soon, and who has lived in India long enough not to hesitate to ask me to share her mattress for the night. There was the bed of the school friend in DC, who has lived in the USA long enough to need to ask if I mind sharing her bed, but who remains sibling enough for us to fight over the blankets in our sleep.

There was the couch in the office where I used to work and where I will always be home enough to be able to go nap during a spare hour of a too-hectic day downtown. There was almost a bed in the house of one of my closest friends from poetry school in Brooklyn, but I’ll never know what that would have been like because my aunt threw a party that night, and said friend and I ended up reunioning over baking brownies in a toaster oven instead of having a slumber party.

There was the futon in San Antonio where I spent Spring Break two years ago, catching my breath in the comfort of an old friendship, between the many episodes of illness and the deaths that punctuated my years in graduate school. There was the solid ground and open night sky of the Texan desert, sleeping bag on picnic blanket, with the moon and stars so bright they woke me up periodically.

There was the wrought iron bed in the house of another high school friend in Los Angeles, where we slept less than we talked during my brief first visit of only 10 hours. There were the cushions and the sleeping bag on the floor of the spare room in the home of my favorite family -- a former professor and his wife and daughter -- where ocean sounds mix with distant highway traffic, and two beautiful dogs vie to shed hair all over you and your bedding. There was the Japanese fold out mattress in the graduate apartment of a close friend from college who says she’d cook and clean for anyone the way she does for me, but who nevertheless succeeds thereby in making me feel like a special guest. There was another night in the wrought iron bed, except the bed had by now moved to a new apartment, and we spent an hour after midnight literally making the bed we’d lie in.

There was the 6-hour long bus journey to see another of my closest graduate school friends, during which I did most of the sleeping I didn’t do the previous night as we talked rather than slept in that newly remade wrought iron bed. There was this graduate school friend’s bed in an apartment full of loud, night-owl musicians, while he slept in someone else’s apartment. There was a bed covered in drapery in San Francisco where I napped after an eleven hour journey that could have taken just three hours. There was a couch by a window, with a view of the ocean and the most gorgeous light, in the home of an acquaintance who became a close friend while I stayed there. There was a spare bedroom in another house, this time in the UAE, where I recovered from jet lag and was offered four pillows and fell asleep to the crying of an old friend’s new baby.

There was my mother’s bed with my own pillow, and my dog on the floor beside me, for one brief night as I transitioned from holiday-travel to family-emergency-travel. There was a mattress on the floor of an almost empty apartment belonging to a friend of my father’s, where my family and I processed his sudden illness. There was another mattress in the home of another friend who is an expert at making one feel safe when one stays with her during an emergency. There was the half-broken fake leather armchair in the waiting room of the ICU, where I spent many long hours, reading or napping or talking to my father’s family, whom I otherwise don’t see very often. There was the attendant’s bed in the hospital, where I napped while my father rested after his four bypasses, and where I will spend tonight.

Soon, in another couple of days, there will be my own bed, at home. For many weeks, perhaps even months, to come. I have never looked forward to it so much. But I will also always look back with a smile at this summer spent in so many beds, homes, hearts. And I will always look forward to the opportunity to offer a bed in my own home to all of these people I am privileged to call my own.

 

On travel. And writing and photographing it.

If you've followed this blog, you probably know at least two things about me — that I love to travel and that I love to write. It may be why people often ask me what I write "about," quickly followed by some version of, "for example, are you a travel writer?" I never to know how to answer that "about" question. As for the "for example" question, I think a safe response would be "I don't think so." Of course, my recent essay about Tabo, perhaps the older "featured post" about Tepoztlan, and the "India Untravelled Guest Blogger" badge on this blog, would seem to claim otherwise.

Here's the (quickly blurring, even in my head) distinction I make: I like to tell stories. Sometimes those stories are about pottery because it's one of the things I love. Sometimes they are about education because it's another of the things I love. And sometimes those stories are about travel because I love that too. But just as I don't think of myself as a pottery blogger or an education writer, I don't think of myself as a travel writer. Writer, period.

(if you've known me longer than a year, you know how long it took me even to acknowledge the "writer" part! Give me time, I'll come around to the rest! :P)

Over the next year or so, though, if I do manage to keep up with my personal post-a-week challenge, you probably will hear more travel stories. Partly because I intend to travel quite a bit between now and next August — details as they unfold! ;) — and mostly because I'm starting to realize I love telling travel stories because they are, in some ways, most the stories of who I am as I walk through the world. I am most alive in new and unexpected places and situations, and I am most myself while talking (really talking) to strangers who belong in a context that is different from mine. Those stories are, therefore, stories I love to tell and stories that I think tell you more about me and about my world than most others would. More importantly, though, those stories become how I remember a place. They become the frame in which I understand my time there.

And speaking of frames, I am starting to think more seriously about travel photography. I used to not like taking photos when I traveled — feel it made me too conspicuous, too tourist like. That changed on my 4 day solo mountain jaunt this March. As I went on long, solitary mountain walks, photo taking became a way of pausing, noticing. Needing to create a frame around one little part of the natural world, I was able to really look at that part, to focus in. And regardless of the quality of the photo that came out of it, I had a richer trip because of all the times I paused to look really closely at this rock or that hut or that crease in that old woman's pattu. 

I realized I don't know how to look at the world in general half as well as I know how to look at a particular fragment in it. My friend Pamela talks about that all the time in her writing workshops — about finding a moment that tells a story, about extracting everything possible from that moment. She talks about it as taking a small slice out of a life and examining that slice carefully. I'm realizing that that is exactly how I feel about photo-taking. A chance to look at a slice. I am now getting ready to invest in a good camera and learn more about manual photography... if these photos are going to become slices of my life and moments of the days when I feel most alive, then I need to be able to control them and create them as I choose, not as the auto-focus chooses.

You do know what this means, don't you? You may be seeing more travel stories and travel photos on this blog in months to come. But, no matter what you think of them, don't ask me if I'm a travel writer or a travel photographer. I don't think so.

An Alternative Guide to Tabo

If the monastery at Tabo is a checkmark on your to-do list, listen to the guides, and go there at 9 AM, when the gods are ready to meet the tourists. If you want to catch the gods when they are more at ease, ignore your guide, and go there at sunset. The temples will be locked, sure, but the gods are around, relaxing after a long day of meeting with pilgrims and tourists. They have time to chat.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first day in Tabo; you can’t not find the gorgeous mud structures. There is no way not to notice the piles of engraved rocks — no way not to know that this spot, with its broken wall and open gate, is sacred.

Once inside, close your eyes. Listen to the river gurgling in the distance, the birds who know to keep their chatter to a respectful volume. Open your eyes, and watch the mud temples and walls against the crystal sky. Watch the sky tracing the outlines of the larger mud walls, the mountains in the distance. Breathe in the prayers of a millennium.

That might be the most important thing — breathe deeply. You will need that air later.

If you are there to ask the gods for favors, I won’t promise that they will answer. They are off duty (would you pick up a client’s call at midnight?). But if you are there for conversation, there to listen to the secrets they have been keeping for a thousand years, there for friendship rather than for favors, I’m willing to bet you will not be disappointed.

The locals tell me that one must walk clockwise through this monastery. I trust them on that — you probably should too. All the same, the first time I went in, no one had told me yet to move clockwise, and so I didn’t. I moved from structure to structure, as they called out to me, beckoned me over. I ran my hands over the engravings on the doors, and I sat down to write outside the temple of the mother goddess. I had my back to her, and I wondered briefly how she felt about that, but ultimately, she didn’t seem to care. She knew I meant no disrespect. I was there for love, for friendship, and I think she understood that. I think that meant more to her than did the direction in which I walked or faced.

As you walk out, stop by the shops. The shopkeepers, who have been just as busy with tourists all day as the gods have been, have time to talk in the evening. Let them tell you about what brought them to this town — or what leads them away from this town every winter and brings them back every spring. Let them tell you about another god and where you can meet him, April to October, for a week at a time (it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to meet him — it’s good to know anyway). Let one of them invite you home for tea or sell you a scarf for your mother. Let them explain to you the flags that tourists will buy. Let them give you the stories that cannot be bought.

Walk to the river. Get lost. Let a farmer tell you which way to go, allow you a shortcut through her fields. Let yourself get more lost in those fields when she disappears before you’ve found your way. Accept the slosh of your shoes wading through just-irrigated fields. Stretch your arms into a T, learn to balance on the narrow raised ledges crisscrossing through the fields. Find your way through the barbed wire, back at the mud structures.

Go into the monastery one more time. If you’re lucky, it is now dark enough for the stars. If you’re really lucky, there is no moon, and the stars have free reign of this particular night. Walk through the monastery again, this time by starlight. Walk silently — the gods are probably asleep, and so is most of the town.

Relish being awake and alive amongst resting gods. It may be the closest you ever come to godness.