Thursday, December 4, 2014

December 2014 - A $2 Cushion

A $2 Orange Pillow   

It's almost impossible to get through December without thinking about the holidays and gift giving.  But how many people remember what they got for Christmas last year, or Christmas a few years ago?  It's not that the gift had to be memorable.  Instead, maybe it's because gift giving has become like eating - just something one does.  I was like that myself, until one day in India when I realized, trite as it may sound, gift giving was more about what I was receiving.

I went to India on a three-week pilgrimage with a spiritual group intent on meditating in holy sites, visiting temples, and doing what we could in the slums of India. It's a country of two billion people that assaults the senses on every level. The cultural adjustment is immediate.  Upon arrival, the sights, smells, sounds, pollution, heat and humidity are overwhelming, yet there's a noticeable current of serenity amid the noises of traffic, the endless horn blowing, and the people and cows walking the overcrowded streets. 
India is also a land of contrasts with designer stores on paved foundations flanked by small shops on dirt pathways selling inventories of single items like thread or tin pots.  Our boutique hotel, complete with a uniformed doorman, shared a lane with squatters living in the dirt under rotted tarps supported by tree branches.  Some of the dwellers lived in the shells of rusted out cars.  A few shared a patchwork hut of corrugated cardboard with a galvanized awning that was considered a luxury.  These living conditions, prevalent in the country, defy comprehension.

Because we sat on the floor of the temple during meditations several of us needed to buy a cushion.  Our hotel driver Salim took us to a local seller because he felt the designer stores would be horribly overpriced.  He was right.  We bought four cushions for $8 whereas the cushions would have cost $25 each in the designer stores.  It was then we learned from Salim that a good wage in Delhi was $20 a month.
Before leaving Delhi for northern India we had to lighten our luggage so I wanted to give the cushion away.  I'd seen the woman who lived in the dirt under the tarps.  Every day she cut fresh tree branches to support her decaying roof.  I'd walked past her dwelling several times, noticing only a small candle for light in the dingy interior.

Not knowing what protocol to follow I went down the lane to give her the cushion.  I was stopped by the uniformed door man who did not speak English but clearly did not want me to walk down the lane.  Our pantomime of flailing gestures summoned an elderly man who came out of the dwelling to see what was happening.  He spoke English so translated for the doorman what I wanted to do.
All of a sudden the doorman began to tear up as he moaned in Hindi.  He put his hand over his heart and kept shaking his head.  The old man translated for me what was happening.  It seems the woman I'd seen cutting the tree branches was his wife.  This job he held was the sole support of an extended family living under the tarps and cardboard.  He too lived under the tarps, appearing at the hotel daily to shower and put on the hotel-provided uniform.  He was crying because no one had simply given something to him or his wife before and he was overcome with emotion.  The old man who I learned later was his father, put his arm around the uniformed man's shoulder and both of them cried as they hugged the orange cushion.
In that single moment I understood the impact of what he said and tears welled up in my eyes as well.  This was India, where people living in the dirt under tarps could never afford a $2 orange cushion.  This was India, where a $2 orange cushion that I could have easily tossed away, had caused a grown man and his father to cry with gratitude.  This was India, where upon my return to Delhi, walking past the dwelling one night, I saw a $2 orange cushion glowing in the candlelight of the otherwise colorless interior.

This was the gift of a $2 orange cushion.  But the gift was in receiving the unheard of gratitude and heart-felt smiles from street dwellers who saw the cushion as a beacon that someone cared.  The gift kindled a visceral appreciation for the bounty we have in this country and often take for granted.  The $2 orange cushion memory stays with me every day, but it's especially magnified during the Christmas gift-giving season.   
Jo Mooy - December 2014  

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