Wabi Sabi - a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight, to find beauty, even in imperfection.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poverty and Nimiety

Pov-er-ty – deficiency; insufficiency.
Ni-mi-e-ty – excess; overabundance.
Compared to millions of people in India, we in America have good and easy lives. Recently, I sat in a comfortable tour bus, where from my window I watched masses of poor, even homeless men, women and children. Many times I turned away because a particular scene filled me with pity, helplessness, anger, even guilt that I watched them from the relative luxury of an incongruous tour bus.

But by journey’s end, I’d begun to wonder. There are all kinds of poverty, and who was poorer—the people of India, or those of us who live our good and easy lives?

Day after day, my bus window was filled with images of thousands of people lingering along garbage-filled streets. Stray dogs sniffed the ground, desperate for any morsel. Cows strutted royally, weaving in and out of traffic at will. Pigs foraged piles of garbage, perpetual smiles on their faces.

I wanted to go home. I missed my well-ordered, sanitary world. My well-fed dogs. I turned away from the window—the outside world, too foreign to me.

But I began to zoom in on the small scenes within the larger scene—the countless conversations taking place between men; women whispering secrets to each other as they walked together; children chasing down the street, laughing along the way.

Many areas had central water pumps where women gathered to collect water in large urns. The beautiful colors of their saris were as bright as spring flowers on a tundra, a rainbow against the gray ugliness that surrounded them. They chatted and giggled as they moved the pump handle up and down to fill the urns. Once full, they placed the urns atop their heads and carried the water away, slow and graceful, their saris flowing like clouds around them.

I thought about the role of water in my own life—about the times I’ve complained about the limitations of living on a farm with a well—no lingering hot showers, no watering flowers. I admired the grace of the women, not only in the way they moved, but in the pleasure they found in performing a chore.

Another scene-within-a-scene was the central bathing area. It consisted of a large concrete tank filled with water—green-tinted water. Even in the near-freezing temperatures of the northern cities—New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra—men and boys gathered around, naked but for scant underpants and a smile. They joked and teased as they soaped themselves.

The voice of one of my fellow passengers provided a whiney soundtrack to the scene I watched. “It’s cold in here. Can’t you turn the temperature up?”

I smiled at the bathers outside, who laughed and cajoled as they splashed each other with water.

Night brought darkness and a change of scene. As the sun set, lean-tos sprang up along the broken walls of the city. One-by-one, the residents of these temporary villages lit campfires, using garbage for fuel. Women stirred the scant evening meal in small pots over the fires, their saris glittering in the flickering light.

“I sure hope we don’t have chicken for dinner again tonight,” a woman on the bus complained as we headed for the hotel. Guilt dampened my own hunger pangs. I too had been looking forward to a “good steak” upon returning home.

When the last warmth of sunlight had disappeared, orange flames dotted the sidewalks and streets like twinkling lights on a tree. Children chased each other, weaving around the campfires and stopping at times to warm their hands. Hunched around other flames, men talked, their faces expressive, hands animated.

Some did not have a fire to keep them warm, and they hunkered close to the wall, under dirty blankets, tarps, garbage—whatever was available to use as cover.

Many of us had complained that day about the hard beds we’d slept on the night before.

I thought about what I would be doing at home as the sun set. Flip on the news. Turn on the computer. Check my email. See who’s on Facebook. Gripe about the slow internet.

Each day, I looked forward to watching the children of India play. As with the adults, Indian children spend most of their daylight hours outside. Without electricity, it is dark inside the houses. And without electricity, there are no televisions. So, the children run, play with each other, ride bikes, build forts, create games with sticks, stones, garbage.

I couldn’t help but reflect on commercials that had played during the Christmas season, where kids recited their lists to Santa Claus:

“I want a Nintendo Wii with a Modern Warfare game module.”

“Can I have a new I-Pod Touch? Sherri got a new pink one, and besides, my old one has run out of memory.”

“Can I have a digital camera? Make sure it has at least ten megapixels.”

“Oh, please—I just have to have a Hannah Montana doll!”

I considered the chasm of wealth between our cultures, both material and spiritual. Yet, I was still overwhelmed by the primitive, sparse living conditions that surrounded me. I’ll admit, I was often happy to be on the bus, secluded from that world. But beyond the deficiency of wealth, in the people of India I found a richness of spirit I believe is often missing in our good and easy lives, as we pursue excessive abundance.

One day, I watched a woman sitting next to a man I assumed was her husband, as he laid stones in a sidewalk he was repairing. She looked fragile, and all but her eyes were hidden behind a dingy veil. Her eyes were dark and hard, almost angry. I stared at her, imagining stories about her life. I surmised so many different tales, but each had the same conclusion—she’d live unhappily ever after with her difficult lot in life.

For a brief moment, our gazes met.

Though a bit intimidated by her eyes and uncomfortable being an American who watched her from a window on a tour bus, I waved at her. And smiled.

Her eyes brightened. She removed the veil from her face and smiled the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.

She tapped her husband on his back, and he turned to look at me, too. The tired lines on his face disappeared and he, too, smiled and waved at me.

We shared a tiny moment of happiness, and it transcended poverty and wealth.

No, I wouldn’t trade my life for any of the lives I witnessed in India. Many times, I counted my blessings for being born in America, and for the opportunities I’ve been given. But I also realized that often, we pursue those opportunities too-focused, like a horse with blinders, we gallop toward what we consider a better life. And we pass right by the simple pleasures in life. A warm conversation. A good laugh. A chance to play. A smile shared with a stranger.

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