Springtime is when I come alive again–especially this year when winter seemed to stretch way too far into April. The blossoms in the park and on the streets and behind my apartment make my heart swoon–and I’m always trying to capture them with my camera as their fleeting nature always gives me a sense of urgency and the beauty reminds me of what is real and true.
I’m currently on page 445 of 605 in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. My thought when I picked this one was that I was moving through books so quickly that it would be wonderful to have a long read that I could linger in for a while–I’m definitely lingering. My nightly exhaustion from unpacking and setting up our apartment left me making about 5 pages of progress a night. Luckily we are finally feeling more settled and I’ve resumed my mostly normal reading habits before bed. Then, of course in the past week and a half I’ve also had to read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer and Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson for my graduate class. Talk about a disrupted reading life. Ha.
Through the class I’ve been learning a lot about myself as a reader alongside how to best teach my students. We moved in about a month ago now and I can say with absolute certainty that not taking time to write about my reading each weekend–which is basically taking time to reflect on the world around me and where I find myself in it–has left me feeling unsettled and not like myself. So even though I’m not quite done with the book yet, I feel compelled to write about where my brain has been lingering over the past month or so while reading it.
A Fine Balance is a book about how 4 people’s lives come together in India in the 1970s: a woman who was widowed in her 20s after three years of marriage and has struggled and strived to remain independent, an uncle and nephew pair who were bold enough to learn a trade above their caste and left their village to seek work in the city, and a young student who was sent by his parents from their comfortable home and general store in the mountains to the city to study. What I’ve been able to get to know the most through this book beyond these characters is an India that I confess I was utterly uneducated about: when in 1975 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency that allowed the President to rule by decree and suspend elections and civil liberties.
When the student comes from the mountains to study, he is stunned by the way people live. His new friend tells him: “The problem with you is, you see too much and smell too much. This is big-city life–no more beautiful snow covered mountains. You have to learn to curb your sissy eyes and nose,” (238). As a wide-open-spaces lover turned long-time city dweller, over the years my own eyes have shifted into what I find beautiful. Growing up, I spent so much time in t
he woods or in my midwestern suburban town where everything seemed picture perfect. Beauty in New York is defined differently than my creekside wildflowers, backyard tomato garden, or street medians with planters. New York’s beauty is mostly man-made, be it in the architecture or the energy, but it is also side by side with rats and urine-baked sidewalks in the summertime and of course, millions of people, most of whom do not live in luxury apartments or take cabs to work.
The question I’ve been left thinking about is “what is beauty and how do we construct our lives around it?” The two tailors in the book live in one of the city’s slums until the government forcefully removes the residents and levels the slum in the name of “beautification.” Of course in reading the story, I got to know not only the tailors, but the way of life in the slum and see pictures of the people there: and once you know the people, you begin to see the beauty–even if it’s amid a mass “toilet” that lies on the other side of the train tracks. Because there is a line that forms at sunrise to fill a few buckets with water from a single pump and the people in it are capturing water for their families to sustain their lives and having conversations and living life together.
So, sitting here in my apartment I’ve worked hard to make visually appealing and to feel like a home, I want to challenge myself to seek out true beauty this week: to look for it most of all in the spirits of people–be it my students, the deli guys who know my coffee order by heart, the people I sit next to on the train, or the ones I pass by on the street. I want the spirit and beauty of humanity to be as much of a comfort to me as springtime blossoms or coming home to clutter-free counters and a tea kettle waiting for me.