Acknowledging Prayers Offered On Our Behalf

On 30th July, I hiked up to Corbet High Camp–operated by Jackson Hole Mountain Guides–in Wyoming’s Teton range in the Grand Teton National Park–to begin an attempt to scale the Grand Teton on August 1st. There, at high camp, my climbing partner and I met another pair of climbers, young lads from Louisiana, headed up the Grand the very next morning; we would be sharing camp with them for the afternoon and evening. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries; many notes of excited and nervous anticipation made the rounds; we each confessed to the peculiar state of excitement and apprehension that seemed to possess us. Later, as time for dinner approached, the older of the two lads asked us if we would mind if he offered a ‘mountain blessing’ before mealtime. We said we had no problem with him doing so.

And so our new friend took off his hat and bent his knee in prayer. He asked his Lord and God for protection on this mountain; to aid him with good luck as he attempted to climb the mountain with his cousin; to bless all those he had met today and made friends with and who would also be climbing the mountain; to lay his protective hand over all of them alike. As he spoke, we laid down our spoons and forks and waited; when he had finished speaking, we all thanked him. (I cannot, in this text, recapture my friend’s distinctive Louisiana accent, but it was present, and it added a little touch of the South to the Western alpine setting.)

I’m an atheist; I do not pray. But I was unambiguously grateful for the prayer that had been offered on my behalf; my thanks were sincere. They were so not because I expected benedictions to now flow my way but rather, because I was deeply appreciative of the gesture of kindness that had just been directed at me. I did not doubt the sincerity of the faith of that young man from Louisiana; he believed all right. And if he did, and had the relationship to his faith that I thought he did, then his asking for blessings to be sent my way which would protect me on the mountain and return me safely to my family were an expression of genuine concern and friendship on his part. Up there on that mountainous perch, the majestic Middle Teton and its enormous snowfields clearly visible, I was conscious of my own insignificance in the face of nature’s grandeur and might; my friend’s blessing was a fortification of my humanity in the face of such natural power, it was a reminder that when we climb mountains we always seek to return to those who love and care for us, that friendships and companionship are ever more important on the mountains, that I would need the help of the others to get up and down safely. Acknowledging the sincerity and warmth and these diverse messages of that blessing, the gesture it made, was the only right thing to do. Even for a non-believer.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.

Doris McIlwain On The Rationality Of ‘Irrational’ Love And Hate

In Living Palely: On the rationality of a certain fullness of feeling (Artlink, Vol 29 No. 3, 2009), Doris McIlwain writes: 

Friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises. They become strangely symptomatic when we approach them as if they are….To me the sign that you really like someone is when you cannot quite offer a full answer when asked why. You could offer reasons, but they would not be the full story….the hot, less thoughtful bits of emotion can contribute intuitive information that we couldn’t get in any other way, as when we experience an inexplicable discomfort at what someone has just said and realise we are being lied to.

McIlwain would have agreed, I think, that if ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises’ then neither are enmity and hatred. We cannot quite explain why we do not like someone; why they make us uneasy, why they ‘just rub me the wrong way.’ We are asked to explain why; we find we fail; our explanations ‘run out somewhere.’ We are helpless in the face of an ‘intuitive’ feeling that something is amiss, something we ‘cannot put a finger on,’ something that pushes us away, that repels us. (We might find, in the course of an analytic session, on the therapist’s couch, that these wellsprings of emotion stream forth from an unresolved, unintegrated childhood experience; perhaps there are encounters we need to have with the past before we can confront the present and the future. The unconscious holds on tightly to emotions and memories alike.)

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

A desirable one, of course, one that speaks to the irreducibility of this mixed up creature we know ourselves to be, this blend of cold and hot, calm and turbulent, this always elusive subject–to the merely reasoned or affective. Reason and emotion working together ensure we always break the mold; they make this world richer and more variegated; we are grateful we see this world through the stereoscopic vision these two lenses afford us.

An Epistolary Relationship For The Ages

Shortly after I finished high-school I bade goodbye to a good friend. He was headed to the United Kingdom, to join his father–he had taken up a job with a civil engineering firm. My friend would, so to speak, ‘repeat’ high school; he would take his A-levels and then seek university admission. I was sad to see him go; he had been a constant companion, providing a nerdy interlocutor for conversations about cricket, music, science, and of course, girls. We had cut school and harassed teachers together; we had fretted about life after school together.

But all was not lost; we could write to each other. We resolved to do so. I was not lacking in confidence in my letter writing abilities; I had, after all, spent two years in boarding school and built up a diligent correspondence with my mother, and over the years I had often exchanged letters with my grandfather. I had some facility in the art of writing a letter.

And so it came to be. For five years, from 1984 to 1989, as my friend finished his university education, we corresponded regularly. We wrote letters by hand, sometimes on plain sheets of paper, which were then folded and stuffed into vintage airmail envelopes–the ones with those colorful, seemingly serrated, blue and red borders–and sometimes, more conveniently, but less thrillingly, we wrote on Indian postal service aerogrammes.

My friend wrote to me about his school, the friends he made, the music he listened to–the kinds of things boys and young men in the making talk about. We discussed the Indian cricket team’s fortunes; we lamented sporting failures; we crowed over sporting glory. We ‘talked’ about the movies we had seen, and sometimes, in a nod to our growing maturity, we offered each other commentary on the world’s geopolitical state.

I looked forward to his letters; I presumed he did the same on his end. The sight of that aerogramme, the airmail envelope, marked with the distinct impress of her Her Majesty’s Postal Service and my friend’s stylish, busy handwriting, never failed to produce a little thrill. I would tear open the flaps, making sure not to destroy the missive visible within, and then, eagerly read through its contents.

I left India in 1987, but our correspondence continued. My address, my zipcode, changed; my friend’s did not. Now I typed up my letters using the fancy word processors whose use I had recently mastered; I used laser printers to produce gleaming printouts on fancy white paper; my letters sped across the Atlantic, powered now by the US Postal Service. Besides his letters, my friend sent me newspaper cuttings with cricket scores, commiserating with the sad deprivation I was now subjected to in the Land Without Cricket.

Early in 1989, we both switched to email. Later that year, my friend moved to California to begin his graduate studies. We continued to write but the frequency of our correspondence began to trail off. We met each other on our trips to the East Coast and West Coast; we spoke on the phone.  Later, after finishing business school in Boston, he moved to New York City and began work, first with a management consulting firm, and then later, with an internet startup. He got married; he had two children. Our lives steadily grew apart; I was a graduate student and an academic; he was a businessman. He once suggested my failure to respond adequately to a message from him indicated we had grown too far apart; I said I did not think so, and shortly thereafter we met again for a drink. All seemed well.

Last year, after my daughter was born, he wrote me an angry email, asking why he had not been sent a birth announcement, why I had not visited him in India on my last trip there. I wrote back, pointing out the only announcement I had made had been on Facebook, that I had not informed anyone on an individual basis, that my trip to India had been consumed by familial commitments and even some legal hassles. My explanation did not seem adequate to him; he did not write back. I have not heard from him since.

But I have not forgotten his postal address from those five years of sustained correspondence: 102 Wandle Road, Morden, Surrey, SM4 6AE UK.

The Wedding As Public Shared Celebration

This past weekend, I attended an ‘inter-faith’ wedding, staged in a beautiful, rural, upstate New York location–on a farm. It was an emotional and moving experience. I didn’t just attend the wedding; I also ‘officiated’; that is, I ‘performed’ the wedding ceremony. I read out a brief opening address, and with a co-officiant, shepherded the couple–two good friends of ours, who had granted us this privilege–through the various steps: beautiful, moving songs–including a favorite lullaby–sung by the bride’s mother and childhood friend, a secular version of the Jewish blessings of the wine and the seven blessings, and the exchange of vows and rings and the declaration–‘by the powers vested in me by the state of New York’–as husband and wife.  (My authority to solemnize my friends’ wedding is drawn from my, ahem, ordainment as a minister in the Universal Life Church.¹) And then, finally, the smashing of the glass, the loud, ringing ‘Mazel Tov!’

(I was a little nervous, a little afflicted by stage fright as the wedding began; my worst fears were confirmed as I began by mispronouncing the groom’s name, and then stumbled over my attempt to recover, blurting out, in a painfully tongue-tied moment, that that mispronouncement would only be ‘the first of my errors.’  Fortunately, my refusal to be fazed by a wildly fluttering chuppah stood me in good stead, and the ceremony moved on smoothly from that point thereafter. Many guests at the wedding offered their kind reassurances afterwards that I hadn’t screwed up things too badly.)

From there on, it was kisses and hugs and cocktails and dinner and toasts and dancing and Hava Nagila. (I would have danced and frolicked a bit longer, a bit more uninhibitedly, if I had not been afflicted by a slightly sprained ankle.)

Marriage is a notion with a contested history and meaning. It is the subject of political disputes and legal wrangles; it is a term still up for bitter and emotional definition and contestation. Who may get married? To whom? And how? And so on. Those debates are fascinating–most of us will have engaged in them at some time or other. (I’ve done so on this blog.) On Saturday, I sidestepped the debates, but I still remained engaged by the concept.

As I watched my good friends get married, a familiar thought occurred to me: a wedding, which signals the beginning of a marriage and a married life for two persons, is most fundamentally a public, participatory act, a celebration of a loving relationship in the company of those important to them. This thought most animated my opening remarks; certainly the sharing of the relationship, the calling together of friends and family to celebrate with each other was what my friends sought to place front and center in their ceremony and the doings afterward. They succeeded.

If only those who seek to legislate on this matter could be similarly inclined.

Notes:

1. Apparently, the authority of Universal Life Church ministers to solemnize marriages in New York State is a matter of some legal dispute, a rather dismaying fact that has only now come to my attention.