Friday, March 13, 2009

Washing Clean

I've learned the art of hand washing. The secret is in the bucket and the agitation technique. Soap acts like fingers that reach into fabric and grab things, little bony taxi drivers for the dirt. I laundered the pants, tops (called kurtas) and scarves (dupatas) in Varanasi. I hung them on
curtain rods of the room where I lived beside the Ganges for a few nights.

Every morning, I sat on the roof and had my breakfast of boiled eggs and toast. Any moment: midnight, dusk, morning or noon, I could look to the fires burning not far from the guest house. Each fire signified the end of one life. Smoke rose into the air to travel down wind; ashes were scooped and poured into the waters to float down stream. In this way, the dead always inhabit Benares.

Throughout the day, I discovered the many ways folks of all ages could ask for, sometimes demand, money. The living are hungry and cunning in tactics. While circumnavigating the stupa built at Sarnath on the location of the Buddha's first teaching, my hands folded, eyes cast down, lips gently moving in mantra, tattered children approached me, shoving a trinket at me. Wild haired hags with filthy bodies clawed at my shoulders in front of the temple. Men would give me some common fact about where we were and then ask me for money. People charged and asked for more with stories I came to automatically doubt. Instead of passing out rupees to these impoverished beings, who usually complained at whatever amount was given, I would purchase small amounts of food and feed it to the dogs and puppies near the guesthouse. The Momma dog knew how to beg too, but it was easier for me to attribute that desperation to her speices than to my own.

I strive to find the beauty in each person, to look past the suffering, the rudeness, the inconvenience, my own guilt. I wanted to learn how to see the essence of the person despite the circumstance. This is my new commitment, to see the beauty. I do not want to identify with a person through their suffering or my own. I don't want to recognize them as their craving, their complaint, their striving, their personal tastes. I want to see the light in the heart of the starving and annoying beggar. Having seen the pristine Ganga close to her source, I don't want to define her by the chunks of ash, garbage and desperate false hope. In the moment, her waters are rushing towards the Bay of Bengal, reflecting color to the sky, cooling the humid air above her. She is water.

And as I smell the scent of smoke in my newly washed clothes, I want to smile. In a few minutes, I can wash them anew. Smelling the acrid remnants of death and Varansi, I can appreciate the moment of humanity captured in the threads and be grateful for its impermanence.


  1. An excellent goal, to try and see the inner beauty in each of us.
    Your comments on handwashing remind me of the film "Far and Away", and the scene where Tom Cruise (ssss) instructs Nicole Kidman in laundering - "You plunge and scrub. Plunge and scrub."
    Your writing in this post put me right there with you, amid the hanging wash, gently blowing in the breeze.

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