Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Solo?

Although I’ve taken several trips with friends, family and tour groups, I always liked traveling solo.  Even on R.V. trips with my brother across the U.S. and Canada, we drove separate vehicles and often took separate side trips.   Scenes that stand out most vividly in memory are of places I’ve explored on my own; surroundings impress themselves most intensely on my mind when significant others are not around to distract.   
Now that I’m older and living alone, how do I feel about that?  I’ve lived alone some fifteen years now, since my youngest daughter went off to college and my mother died not long thereafter.  Yes, that daughter didn’t stay long in college; she moved back into one room of the house briefly, then out and on her own again.  A couple of years later, she moved back into the downstairs with a husband and baby while I had quarters on the second floor.  By that time I was traveling and working elsewhere--to supplement retirement income and to see the world--so I just needed a place to land when I returned to regroup.  My daughter and her husband kept up the house and the yard, more or less, in my absence.
I realized that I liked living alone.  I had lived with others most of my life:  as a child with parents and siblings, in college with room-mates, during two marriages with husbands and children, and later with growing children until they left for college.  I may be strange, but I find that the emotional tension of living with another (or with others) rubs me raw inside. 
I don’t like it when someone is angry with me.  Once, my first husband became angry and stopped speaking to me for at least a day after I had helped him with something he was not able to do by himself (solve a calculus problem), even though he had asked me to help him. Another time, a colleague complained that an instrument (an ultramicrotome) didn't work and, when I fixed it, he became annoyed and called me a "ball-buster."  These episodes of unjust rejection and helplessness were burned into my memory.  You get no love for being a competent woman.

I feel unhappy and helpless if someone I care about is hurting and I can do nothing for them.  My daughters all have had hurts from friends and boyfriends, and I could do nothing but listen, and sometimes they wouldn’t even talk with me about what was hurting them. 
I feel betrayed when I’m taken advantage by others I try to help.  I have learned the strategy of ignoring “friends” who have problems I listen to, but who are not there for me when I need them. 
I become annoyed and defensive if someone encroaches on my space and time for trivial demands.  And I particularly don’t like the TV blaring when I’m trying to read or concentrate on a project.
I am deeply saddened if someone I care about rejects me.  Like most others, I’ve had my share of unrequited love.  I must say that my love-life has been fair, however; I’ve probably ended (or refused to begin) relationships as often as I’ve been rejected.
I am keenly sensitive to mocking or sarcasm and will try to avoid anyone who behaves that way toward me or others.  Before I retired, I was a female in a male-dominated profession and was the brunt of no end of sniping and sarcasm from many (although not all) male “colleagues.”  (This had not always been the case; I was in one professional setting in which male colleagues were, in general, pleasant and supportive, but that was not the norm in my professional experience.)  I came to understand that insulting behavior toward others is a way that "civilized" males establish dominance relationships within their mini-tribe.  I even learned to lash back with feigned good humor from time to time, but that behavior was never natural and it came at an emotional price.  This was undoubtedly one of the reasons I decided to take early retirement from a faculty position in the bio-medical sciences; I just didn't like the constant battle for status.
So this sensitivity to emotional dissonance in my surroundings is probably a major reason I’m now alone and liking it.  The price of peace may be solitude.  Bless friends and family with their own homes!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Indian Fantasy

India is a land of fantasy, pervaded by a four-millennia-old, polytheistic mythology that most Hindus believe in still, whereas polytheism in Egypt and Mesopotamia and Western Europe long ago yielded to a sterner, more practical monotheism.  It is a land where elephant gods and monkey gods bring luck and long life, where killing a cow is considered a “heinous crime” for which one may be jailed indefinitely, but deformed humans live on the streets and are allowed to die, untended, like cows.  It is a land in which the grimy, ash-laden waters of the Ganges are believed to purify whatever they touch, a land in which history and mythology and superstition are so interwoven, as in a Kashmiri rug, that they create a strange pattern on whose form and imagery no two observers can agree.
One wants to like India.  The Indian people, themselves, are likeable:  deferential, pleasant, clever, largely honest.  They are mostly attractive people, except for the deformed and/or starving beggars one sees everywhere along urban streets.  In mid-November, 2009, I took a trip to India, a country I have wanted to visit most of my adult life.  In my mind’s eye, it was a land painted in exotic colors and flavors – splendid ancient temples in the countryside, aromatic spices in the air, and spiritual enlightenment in people’s souls. 
The reality, as I experienced it, was very different.  I saw a land and people that seemed worn out, worked, reworked and overworked; edifices built, rebuilt and abandoned; ruins and unfinished construction everywhere.  Most disturbing of all, I saw people and animals scraping and foraging for remnants of whatever they could find to sustain themselves in what were clearly difficult and painful lives.  I was prepared to see poverty; one sees that everywhere - adjacent to wealthy neighborhoods in Central and South America; in the cities and countryside of Egypt; in the ghettos of U.S. cities, and in the Appalachian back-country.  I was not prepared, whenever we hit the streets, to be mobbed by the skeletal figures of children begging or hawking cheap wares, nor for the heartbreakingly disfigured humans lurking around the edges of the suppliant mob, hoping to be noticed, hoping for something to be tossed their way. 
And the animals - foraging garbage from plastic bags strewn along the edges of streets, alleyways and railway tracks; urinating and defecating anywhere and everywhere; many of them without owners, especially cows and dogs, scabby and flea-ridden, dependent upon whatever beneficence comes their way from gentle-hearted humans.  It just seemed to me there might be a better nutritional use for what was given to (and stored in the flesh of) those animals. 
The ancient temples are, for the most part, not very ancient, at least not in the northern Indian cities I visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Veranasi (Benares).  Most ancient Indian temples and other public buildings were razed and pillaged during the two major waves of invading Muslims (13th & 16th centuries).  Much of what we think of as Indian architecture is really Islamic/Persian in origin (“Indo-Islamic” as it’s called), and is from the Mughal period (1500’s – 1700’s), including the famed Taj Mahal, really a giant tomb.  The ancient Indus Valley civilization lies almost entirely in what is now Pakistan and is, to all purposes, inaccessible to Western tourists.  We did see an early Hindu temple complex at Chandelas, preserved only because Muslim conquerors did not penetrate to that part of the country, as well as an historic Buddhist complex near Veranasi.

And then there was the outside air.  Only in one city (Jaipur) could I breathe without experiencing wheezing and coughing spasms.  I had brought along disposable masks to protect me from catching a respiratory virus on the plane trips (Miami – London – Delhi and back), but I wore them during most of the trip, while outside the hotels, to protect me from the smoke and dust and grit in the air.  Layering the sandy and barren ground is discarded plastic and dropped cow dung.  The latter can be mixed with straw (~1:3), then turned, by hand, into patties about the size of roof tiles, to be used as cooking and heating fuel, which adds to the brown haze layering the air, at least during the non-monsoon season. 
Finally, there is the “spiritual enlightenment.”  That would take many pages, another time.  And yet, I’m glad I went.  I certainly learned a great deal and must meditate on it much more