Eat, Pray, Drive

June 4, 2010

The soft-serve stand streaks by in a parallel universe as you power your aluminum alloy eighteen-speed bike or glide over the pavement with your firm new running shoes. You can feel the fitness building, in real time, the oxygen streaming into your blood, your blood forming new capillaries to serve new muscle, fat cells shriveling in quiet desperation as their contents are consumed to feed the cleansing, invigorating fire…. while the stationary soft-serve eaters move in the opposite direction, or don’t move, but stand in chubby clumps, leaning on cars, and pushing mounds of cold sugar-fat into their faces. It makes you feel so good, so righteous, so confident that you are performing the true self-service.

And yet, here you are, in street clothes, on a hot May evening, with Jo and our new friend Monika, shifting your feet in a clumpy line, buying Monika her first ever Creemee. She is from Bombay, with a recent Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Louisiana State University and a one year contract with the Department of Motor Vehicles as they reconfigure their state-wide database.

She has adopted us as her American uncle and aunt. We are accustomed to adoption, both formal and informal, with our own two children from Calcutta and the scores of others who have passed in and out of our doors over the years. But she has turned the tables; she is the visitor, the one far from home, yet she is the one who chose us, identified us as the ones she wished to welcome into her heart and life. She comes on Sundays and shows Jo how to make dal (lentils) and raita (yogurt and cucumber) and talks to me about things Indian, Hindu worship, and belief. It is one of those Sundays and we’re driving her back to her home-share with Cindy when we make a detour to that ever popular American shrine, the Creemee stand.

We get our ice cream and find a seat on the bench that looks down, through a space in the trees, on the muddy Winooski. I tell her that Winooski means ‘wild leek’ in an old local language and I ask about rivers. “Are they all holy? rivers?” “Yes.” “The Ganges, it’s special right?” “Yes. But all the rivers….” Jo has been to India, seen pictures of the Ganges, “It’s so dirty,” Jo says, “I couldn’t step into the Ganges, could you?” “No,” says Monika, “it is, and polluted.” “The Indus River,” I ask, “Indus actually means ‘river’ right? in Hindi, the River River?” “Yes,” Monika confirms. Indus, Hindi, Hindu, India, indigo, all from the same Sanskrit root. A river runs through them, in them, is them.

“But it isn’t the rivers really, that are holy,” she explains, “it’s the water, in all the rivers. We worship the water, because it gives life, it feeds the food that feeds us. It isn’t idol worship, we worship the life in it, the goodness it gives us. We worship trees too, but not because trees are gods, but because of the fruit, the fuel, the shade they give us.”

As my stomach slowly turns, filling with chocolate I-don’t-know-what Monika speaks of Calcutta and its great festival, Dusshera, that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of Rama over the demon Ravana. “It’s my favorite,” she says, “because we honor it by worshipping the tools of our trade, our profession. My father, he is an electrical engineer, so he brings home some switch boxes and places them on his altar and worships them.” “Really?” “Yes, it is how he earns his living. He depends on them. I work with computers so I place my laptop on my altar. When my brother and I were young we worshipped our textbooks. We placed them on the altars and prayed to them and sprinkled kumkum and haldi (bright red and yellow spices) on them. Being a student was our job and the books were the means to our personal improvement, to a good future. One year my brother worshipped his new bicycle, because it gave him freedom and made him happy. During Dusshera you see taxi drivers sprinkling the powders on their taxis and worshipping them. The taxis enable them to feed their children.”

“So a carpenter would place his hammer and saw on his altar?” “Yes, of course.” I thought of the old hammerhead that sits in a special place on my desk. I had used it way back when to build my first workbench. I reached for my favorite fountain pen that I usually clip into the neck on my t-shirt, near my heart, and always warm when I touch it. “A writer worships her pen?” “Yes, and her ink.”

But worship, why worship? I’m too much an iconoclast (picture-breaker) and cranky protestant to not break that word apart, so later that evening I gathered my revered alphabet books together and discovered that until the 13th century the English word worship was spelled worthship and meant worthiness, the state of value of something. To worship is to value, to value things that have value, provide value. To recognize and celebrate worthiness.

One problem with this hopefully worthwhile discussion is that from my viewpoint Rama didn’t really conquer Ravana, or at least not once and for all, and that “worthiness” too often appears to be a zero-sum game where the valuing of one thing leads to the degradation of some other equally or more worthy thing. I think of the oil streaming into and poisoning the Gulf of Mexico and the shrimp beds and the wildlife nurseries and am aware that our anger can not merely be directed at greedy oil companies or inept government bureaucracies, but at our very deep (idolatrous?) attachment to mobility, to our beloved automobiles, to getting fresh strawberries in November trucked in from who-knows-where (who-cares-where), to finding every spice in the world in every supermarket. I think of the light-weight alloys in my bike and don’t really want to know which beautiful mountain in Jamaica was strip-mined or which tribal people in Vietnam was relocated in order to extract the aluminum. Is there a hierarchy of worth that we as species can address? Some deep criteria we can begin to agree to? Can the discussion include the rest of life, the rivers, oceans, trees, our fellow living things? Can we perhaps learn together new meanings, worthy meanings of fitness and sacrifice?


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