Walking barefoot

There are certain moments that absorb words. I feel silent now. I feel full. And now I have 90 minutes to craft something deep about my inner thoughts when all I want to do is walk barefoot through the Environmental Sanitation Institute’s shaded paths or write poems about the wind in the trees. My mind doesn’t exist in any one place right now. How to reduce? That is always my frustration with writing—and also my favorite part. Writing is all about pulling an image and molding it so that you can very nearly hold it in your hands, sift it through your fingers—what is its name? I am always doing this here, pulling out pieces of my day and defining them, locking them in my mind through pictures made tangible with words.

I remember when Mr. Mundra first described ESI, he told us it was clean, in a tone that seemed almost to be an apology. And sanitation in America, cleanliness in America, has this connotation of stark white linoleum, of blankness. So I expected the clean Sanitation Institute to be barren—stripped. I envisioned gray boxy buildings and simple cots lining long, windowless rooms. This was, of course, illogical. After all, windowless rooms would be a disaster in this heat. Nonetheless, I couldn’t think of any other way to imagine a place that held the label of a sanitation institute. So I arrived, not expecting my expectation to be accurate but not knowing what else to expect, and found a place that was certainly clean, but also warm. Everything is green or that rusty brick color. The buildings aren’t boxed in. They have no uniform shape and each building runs into the next. The light plays shadows against all the corners.

Last night someone (I believe it was Claire) said as we were walking from the field outside the Canteen back to our rooms that ESI blurred the lines between inside and outside. You can be under a roof but still in the open air, or wandering through labyrinths of brick that weave between silence and birds chirping in the trees. And the air moves far more up here. This is perhaps the first place in Ahmedabad where I have felt a consistent breeze. Yesterday evening when we sat on the lawn and a breeze passed through, Kimberly opened her arms and said, “My mom always used to tell me to catch the wind.” Hers was the kind of posture that makes you imagine mountain vistas and wind-whipped plains. Vast expanses, not of empty space, but of a kind of simple richness. I think this is true openness.

There is something about physically opening yourself up that opens you internally too. I noticed this when I was meditating: sitting up straighter, I could feel the breath of things. Or when I speak (or rather, grin and wave enthusiastically) to the kids at the government school we’re visiting, I find I have to be physically open in order to interact with them. My inability to verbally communicate with them makes me more aware of me body, as it is the only remaining means of communication. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much, or made such an effort to open up my posture. Usually, when I speak about things that make me vulnerable, my body almost caves in on itself, as if to cancel out the openness of my speech. It’s sort of like I have to keep some piece of myself protected. Opening up both your internal self and your body is really hard. But at peaceful places like ESI, it gets a little easier.

 Communication. Communication is basically a movement between inside and outside, the way rooms blend into nature at ESI. There’s a Gandhi quote that I’m completely forgetting right now, but it essentially goes like this: I want my house to be open so that all the cultures of the world can blow through it. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them. There’s this balance of taking in the world and still being grounded in the self that’s really hard to achieve. I think sometimes we spend too much time either running circles within ourselves, or letting ourselves be defined by external social pressures. I know I have both of these problems. I think—perhaps I hope—that I am learning, through stumbling interactions with kids and late-night conversations on the lawn and meditations under the trees, how to move between internal and external openness. How to be both clean and rich with color, how to define each day and still be open to new definitions that may come up on the next. How to catch the wind and smile and mean it. How to let all this be enough.