Saturday, May 29, 2010

Guru Shiksha

When Cathleen set out for college four years ago, she planned to major in Psychology and Interior Design - her two loves. She was particularly interested in Criminal Psychology and we used to joke about how she might team up with Martha Stewart and redecorate the prison system.

But things turned out a little differently.

She got to Boston College where, being a Catholic university, one of the core requirements is Theology. She took her first course and was instantly hooked. It was like a whole new world opened for her and we watched in amazement and admiration as she discovered her calling.

She was always a good student, but this awakening was different than anything we had observed in her before. A little hesitantly at first, then with growing assurance and confidence, she navigated an entirely new discipline: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, the Old Testament . . . and we continued to watch and marvel at the birth of a scholar, a person who loves a particular subject for its own sake.

The faculty in the Theology department at Boston College were all enormously important and supportive in this journey, - and she studied under some of the best-known theologians in the country: Pheme Perkins, Jeff Geoghegan, Pat Kilcoyne, Yonder Gillihan - but perhaps none so much as David Vanderhooft, whom she is looking up at (such a perfect visual metaphor!) in the photo above.

I still remember the day I met him, when she was taking her first course in his Hebrew class. Having heard about him from her frequent and distressed phone calls ("Mom, it's so hard! I'll never pass. I can't understand anything! And whenever I go to talk to him, he just forces me to figure it out myself.") I expected a stern, somewhat tyrannical figure and I was not disappointed. Although he smiled occasionally, he was tough and no-nonsense and quite unsympathetic about Cathleen's difficulties in his course.

So I was surprised to hear that she had signed up for a second semester with him. And a 3rd. And a fourth. Particularly because she didn't make her usual A's in his class. As hard as she worked, she consistently got no higher than a B+ and exhortations to work harder, study more, pay better attention.

But his methods worked. What a teacher. She mastered Hebrew and went on to earn A's in other courses with him, A's that meant more to her than almost any others because she knew how strict a grader he was.

It was in his avatar as a mentor, however, where I really found myself lost in admiration. Seeing him guide Cathleen at every stage of her career at BC made me realize how important mentoring is and what a vital difference it can make in a young person's life. How do we know what we don't know? We all need people who are further along in the game, who let us in on the trade secrets, shepherd us in the right direction, steer us away from what will waste our time or take us down the wrong road and constantly remind us to focus on the end goals we have set for ourselves.

David did that for Cathleen and look where she has arrived! A Fulbright scholar with a full scholarship to Yale Divinity School.

I'm not bragging. Just a proud and grateful Mom saying thank you to David Vanderhooft.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Celebrating Books

It began when our shipment of Tulika Books arrived.

We had saved a little stash of money and we decided to splurge on a whole stack of high quality children's picture books, recommended by our friend Nicola Tansley, mostly in Hindi (a rare commodity around here).

When the box of nearly 200 titles arrived, Priyam and I swooned - so many! So colorful! We couldn't just dispatch them to the various centres. They simply demanded a party.

Priyam, girl wonder, designed the invitation that set the perfect tone.

The project heads were all curious and amused, with no idea what was coming.

I stayed up until two AM making chocolate chip cookies and Priyam got in to the office early to wrap up four individual stacks of books and also to round up a few hat substitutes.

Everyone loves a gift. They were all smiles as they unwrapped the packages.

But the fun really began when they started reading:

because every story seemed perfect for every centre . . . so then the negotiations and the trading:

the serious considerations:

and the jubilant victories:

And all presided over by yours truly, the Irish Cat in the Hat:

Isn't it funny that we get paid for this sort of stuff? That this is our JOB? (Don't tell anyone!)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Visit to the Dentist

OK, so no one likes to go. But for Moy Moy (and her mother), going to the dentist is like major surgery. Because her jaws are reflexively clamped shut and because she has sensory issues when anyone goes anywhere close to her face, expecting her to cooperate while a stranger pokes and prods her teeth with sharp instruments is like expecting a fish to ride a bicycle.

Ravi has a darling dentist - a young woman with a busy, new practice. She is charming, thorough and professional and when Ravi explained to her about Moy's special needs, she said immediately to bring her in so she could do a preliminary check up see what needed to be done.

That was Saturday. We drove to her clinic in town and she came out to the car to do the examination to spare us having to heave Moy out of the car and up the stairs. She was gentle and firm and was immediately able to diagnosis that the problem was a tartar build-up brought on by not chewing food for over five years (Moy eats through a tube). And having experienced Moy's acute distress at having her mouth pried open, she agreed with us that she would need to be sedated for any procedure.

We arranged that Sebastian would call her to discuss Moy's medical history and that she would have her anesthetist on hand for the procedure which we scheduled for today.

I got there a few minutes early. Vikram drove us in because I needed his help to get Moy up the stairs . He settled us in the waiting area (a low, shallow couch almost impossible for Moy to sit comfortably or safely in) and we were soon invited into the inner chamber. I had to ask the nurse to hold my bag while I hoisted Moy to her feet and then shuffled her awkwardly to the examination chair. Swati, the dentist, was standing there with the anesthetist who looked a little stunned at Moy's condition.

He already had an injection prepared and since Sebastian hadn't yet arrived, I asked him what he was planning to give. He told me the generic name and said it would keep her asleep for at least three hours. I asked him what his back-up plan was in the event of a complication, though I could already tell that he didn't have one in mind, let alone in reality. He kept saying he wouldn't do anything without the pediatrician's "clearance" and I kept thinking "You aren't doing anything anyway, buddy."

Sebastian arrived, took one look at the total lack of preparation and skillfully ended the discussion by suggesting that we should do it in a properly fitted theater with general anesthesia and adequate emergency backup. Before we left, however, Swati suggested that we should get a special X-ray of Moy's teeth so that if there were any cavities, she could be prepared to do everything all at once once she was under general anesthesia.

I tried to explain again about Moy's aversion to anything touching her face, but Swati insisted that the X-ray would be a breeze. Sebastian, game for any challenge and cheerful as usual, carried Moy out to the car and we set off for the X-ray place. It was, of course, in one of the most crowded parts of the city at the end of a lane so narrow we had to wait for four other cars to back out before we could cautiously thread our way in.

How can I convey the difficulties of extricating Moy from a car? Her long, stiff, skinny yet curiously leaden-weight body just can't simply be lifted and carried by one person, in spite of her weighing only 70 pounds. But the doorway of a car only allows for one person to do it. So there is an awkward and tense wrestling stage (no graceful way to do it) before it is possible for another to assist. Sebastian and I managed this maneuver together and finally got her into the X-ray clinic where we learned, to no one's surprise, that there was no way on earth she would be able to cooperate with the requirements for a successful test (like sitting straight up unassisted in a chair, absolutely still with a stick in her mouth while the machine circled her head very slowly).

Defeated, we wrestled her back into the car and drove down the road to the dentist's clinic. As we did, Sebastian said jauntily, "This is good, actually. It gives us an idea of what people have to go through. We should be able to tell parents what is possible and what isn't. If the dentist had just listened to you in the first place . . ."

If she had just listened. 90% of being the parent of a child with special needs is fighting. And today, I'm tired of it. Going to the dentist shouldn't mean general anesthesia and total exhaustion, but if it does, it does. Yet there's no need to add unnecessary trips hither and yon when simply listening to the expert (that's me, folks) could avoid them.

Having Sebastian along for the ordeal made it so much easier. His presence was like a protective shield between me and Moy Moy and that sea of onlookers who stare and point and say stupid things. He lifted and carried and made jokes and kept us from dwelling too much on things we couldn't do anything about while reminding us that our going through this might make it easier for others in the same situation - somewhere further down the line.
The moment we parted, literally (we were in our car and he was sitting in his, about to pull out) - a man who had been watching with avid curiosity as we transferred Moy into the back seat and buckled her in, leaned his head inside the still-open door and said "HAS SHE BEEN LIKE THIS FROM BIRTH?"

I felt like answering him: "HAVE YOU?"

But instead I remembered my old friend Jesus who said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Remarkable Story of Ken Carl

This man is sitting in my office. I am one of those people who expects miracles and coincidences as a regular feature of life, but even I have trouble believing how this one came to pass.

Several months ago,  our Chartered Accountant asked us if we would like to participate in a photography project which they were hosting here in Dehradun. Momenta is the name of the American organisation behind it and their philosophy is that photography can be a force for social change. They organise tours for professional photographers to different parts of the world and - through links with voluntary organisations like ours - assign them to an NGO and encourage them to document whatever work the org is involved in.

The idea sounded great to me and I agreed, but, to be honest, without giving it a lot of thought.

When I announced it to my colleagues, however, one of them (our resident firebrand) took grave offense. He thought it was ridiculous for American photographers to come all the way to India to take pictures of our disabled kids ("as if they don't have any of their own.") and implied that we were basically "putting our children up for sale."

While I thought his comments were over-wrought, they did make me realize that I hadn't even done the most basic of background checks on Momenta. So without further delay, I started googling them. 150,000 results, all looking quite legit.

One result included a long list of Momenta "students" - photographers who had signed up for workshops past and future and who had their own websites so you could get a sense of the kind of work they were doing.

I had some time on my hands and I am always a sucker for good photography, so I began trolling. I went through around fifteen different students' sites and got more and more impressed as I went along. These people were amazingly talented. One in particular - a guy named Ken Carl out of Chicago - particularly caught my fancy. His home page had a picture of a girl walking down a street in what looked like Jamaica which I just couldn't get out of my head. The curve of the background building she was walking past (brilliantly yellow, bracketed by a white picket fence), the wet street, her graceful frame, her pensive look . . . I liked it so much that in my email to my colleagues responding to the firebrand's charges, I included a link to Carl's site, saying "This is a Momenta photographer. If the one we get is even half as good as this guy, just imagine what kind of stuff he might shoot for us!"

I know you can guess where this is going, right?

When the team arrived in Dehradun, our CA had already alerted them to our concerns about possible misuse of the photographs of our children. the tour organizer called me immediately to explain thier "model release" policy and to assure us that they were as concerned as we were with any possible exploitation. "That's why we've chosen our most experienced student for your organisation," she continued. "He's also a very sensitive guy and does really creative, subtle work. You can see his work on his website - a guy named Ken Carl out of Chicago."

I almost dropped the phone. What were the odds? Of course she shared the story with Ken - so when we met the next day over coffee at my house, we felt like old friends reuniting.

Ken is one of those rare people so at peace within himself that he brings calm and peace wherever he goes. He spent his time with us mostly in KV School and he made himself so quiet a part of the background the staff and children simply forgot he was around. He caught moments so beautiful and diverse they take your breath away.

Here are just a few:

There are too many to post and anyway, each one tells a story just aching to be told. I don't want to share them all at once. But Ken's visit was the highlight of my year and a turning point in my life which I am still absorbing. Oddly, it forced me to slow down my own photography for a while just to take stock and think a few things through. I will always be grateful for his having spent so much time with us and for being such a warm and generous person, so willing to give his talent to the world.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book of Myself

After Mom died, Lucy kept discovering interesting things she had left behind. One of the most fascinating was a do-it-yourself autobiography which someone must have given her (it was definitely not something she would have bought for herself).

Called "The Book of Myself", it is a blank diary with pithy statements at the top of each page which the diarist is meant to complete. For example:

"If I had any trouble with Mom growing up, it was in this area:"

MY Mom's answer? "None."

"If I had any trouble with Dad growing up, it was in this area:"

Again: "None."

"I wanted this person to be my friend, but the feeling was not mutual."

Mom: "No problem people!"

"This person significantly influenced my life growing up:"

Mom: "No one in particular."

"This is the profession I most often mentioned when people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up:"

Mom: "I don't remember being asked."

"I kept this secret from almost everyone:"

Mom: "No secrets!"

"One big misunderstanding with a friend:"

Mom: "None."

"I learned to take myself less seriously through my friendship with:"

Mom: "Not applicable."

"I regret having burned this bridge:"

Mom: "I do not recall having burned any."

"Of all my personality traits, I hope my family will remember this one about me:"

Mom: "No comment."

The whole book is like this. Page after page after page of searching questions or leading phrases, each one answered in three words or less, brushed off,  pushed aside, deemed irrelevant or - perhaps - impertinent. After the first few pages, the answers become predictable. You know for a certainty that there will be NO revelations here. Yet each question is politely responded to, as if the book had a power of its own, as if, in spite of having no intention of sharing anything personal, she still felt she had to answer.

There was one way she did reveal herself, however. Throughout the book, you can find her proof-reader's pencil at work: a comma added in the introduction, a redundant word crossed out in one of the headings, a misspelling silently corrected. 

But her own personal life is strictly off-limits: No mentors that she can recall, too many friends to list, no romantic interest other than her husband, no conflicts of any kind, no memorable teachers, no chores she disliked, no worries, no fears, no burnt bridges, no secrets!

Yet, what can we assume but that she had many secrets, and that she chose to keep them to herself? In fact, her reluctance to share personal details is itself a revelation of epic proportions, a clue to her selflessness and humility and, perhaps, the reason for her kindness and deep compassion. In this world of tell-all, over-sharing, and facebook bulletins, she really didn't think her hectic inner life was anything so amazing it had to be retailed to the world. And ironically, that means that her mystery and allure just go on increasing for me and many others who knew and loved her. What I wouldn't do to get to know her now, as an adult, to ask her about the things I can only guess at, to get a glimpse into what I am quite sure really WAS an amazing inner life . . .