- The Apple
Happiness is an apple orchard. Juice drips down eager chins; sticky fingers clamber into the green ventricles of the trees. I am six years old. I have lost my shoes, and other irrelevant information. My first-grade teacher is a benevolent femininity watching over us as we fill little baskets with crimson treasure. She calls us over, an apple cupped in her hands. As sunlight bathes this sacred moment, my teacher slices the apple in half, but not in the traditional way, not downward from the stem through the core. Instead, she guides the knife sideways through the apple’s smooth flank, slicing the core horizontally. The big reveal: inside that apple is a perfect star.
The orchard shifts. Indeed, imperceptibly, the whole world shifts, like a giant adjusting in her sleep. I have learned something elusive about the order of the universe, and I don’t know what it is yet because I’m small and new. But inside every apple is a star, and that will have lasting consequences
2. Don Melharmino
I am nineteen years old doing research in the indigenous village of Boruca, Costa Rica. Already I know this is wrong. I sleep in the bed of those I am complicit in marginalizing; I accept their coffee and their gallo pinto and their offers to visit the sacred waterfall. I want to know what they believe about folklore and Christianity. I want them to tell me what God means to them, and myth; I want these people to reveal themselves to a stranger whose only real objective is a good GPA.
I am nineteen years old, sweating and sunburnt, clutching my notebook as I hike to another interview. Red roads, blue sky, greenery bursting with oranges and pinks. It’s so hot that the air pulsates.
Don Melharmino is an old man in a bamboo hut. His hands are callused, his teeth decayed and his eyes brimming with enthusiasm. I mean enthusiasm in the old way: en-theos, with that of God(s) in him. Like most men in Boruca, Don Melharmino carves wooden masks that tourists gobble up, often ignorant of the masks’ historical significance. But Melharmino isn’t offended, and he’s not bitter about it. Melharmino wants me to know about his sacred healing stones, and about the contradictory nature of belief in Boruca, and about the rocks in the mountains that are carved with Boruca’s native language. As far as anthropology knows, Boroca doesn’t have a language.
This is the most terrible thing that has ever happened to me. I know I shouldn’t be in this village, asking questions I have no right to. Now I’ve been given this knowledge I have not earned. I know something very few people know, and I don’t deserve it. There are stars inside of apples, and I know the deepest secret of an indigenous community. Maybe Ms. Silvio shouldn’t have cut open that apple in the first place.
3. The Gamboller
I am on my way to get drinks, sputtering up 80 Foot Road in an ornery rickshaw, anticipating the turn onto CMH Road in Indiranagar, Bangalore. I am thinking small thoughts. Bangalore sputters by, and I absorb none of it.
Until I see her.
It’s impolite to compare humans to animals. But there she is, a woman my own age, gambolling on all fours between two parked cars. She lopes like a dog, her wrists curled in so she walks on the tops of her hands, and her legs malformed. She moves confidently, and it’s clear she’s been living this way her whole life.
My rickshaw moves on quickly, and I’m glad it does. I wanted desperately to look away.
She shakes me from my self-absorbtion; I see her in my mind’s eye for days, loping about on all fours in her pink and yellow sari. It’s not so much the sight of her that shook me, but my reaction to it: I am viscerally disgusted. And I am disgusted that I feel that way
4. The Apology
There are wounds inside all of us. Sometimes the wounds manifest loudly; they cause us to repeat destructive patterns, to sabotage ourselves, to seek out destruction in ways that others can see. Other times our wounds stay hidden, like pebbles in our shoes, heaviness we feel but cannot bring ourselves to acknowledge. I think we refuse to acknowledge the heaviness in others because to do so is to rub up against our own barriers. It’s easier to live with unacknowledged heaviness, to pretend it’s all alright, than to accept the pain of just being.
I am twenty-one, living in South Africa, attending into a workshop on feminism in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the workshop has devolved into misogyny and heteronormativity. Women of all races yell at the few men in attendance: you don’t understand! Womanhood is pain. Motherhood is pain! Wifehood is pain! The men, all of them Black, yell back: You don’t know what Apartheid felt like! Your complaints make light of our suffering! Attacks become personal. This was supposed to be a productive, practical workshop, and instead it is hours and hours of tears and raised voices, where the only gendered analysis is of woman = wife = mother, man = breadwinner.
The pain is a dark knot that kneads my insides. I don’t want to derail the conversation with my angst, but to remain silent would be to let that dark knot devour me.
So I come out. I speak for probably five minutes about how painful it feels when women are articulated only in relation to men, and only in terms of their sexual or reproductive relation to men. I tell that assembled group of South African men and women, plus my peers from LIU Global, how I have been afraid of getting gay-bashed in this country, which is maybe a little bit racist of me and I’m working on that, but that I hurt, and it’s hard, and I want them to think about the ways in which their conversation might be hurtful to gay South Africans. I speak/cry/gesticulate for far longer than is appropriate, but when I’ve finished, the room is different. The group is different.
Some hours later we have all aired our pain, from places of vulnerability. People speak about abuse, addiction, jealousy, fear and hope. We talk about how we understand our duty on this earth, that which we are obligated to do with this lifetime. Up til now we’ve been sitting or standing in a broad circle, but not we sit together on the floor in a comfortable clump. In a moment of silence, an older woman Apologizes. Capital-A Apologizes.
She says, we all carry hurt within us. We’re all waiting for an apology, maybe several. We all feel wronged. And she’d like to say sorry to each of us. From whoever, for whatever hurt, she is sorry. And then, also, she forgives us. From whoever, for whatever hurt we caused, we are forgiven.
I cry for the hurt this group caused me pain. I cry because I didn’t know I needed to be forgiven, for a lot of things, but also for looking away when I saw that woman gamboling on all fours down 80 Foot Road in a pink and yellow sari.
Then I speak again.
“When we were talking about our missions,” I say, “I figured out what mine was. It’s to witness. So often we feel like nobody sees us, really sees us how we want to be seen, without judgement, from a place of radical love. I want to do that. I am on this earth to bear witness, and to love, and not to look away.”
I’ve witnessed a lot and I need to take a break, so I come home to New York. I do schoolwork and spend hours savoring cups of coffee. I learn how to make perfectly fluffy eggs, how to slow down enough to proofread a novel, how to stay sane in this kind of city. I also spend a lot of time thinking about what I’ve seen. I’ve stared into the eyes of a woman dying from AIDS. I’ve watched a dead body float past me on the Ganga River. I’ve prayed to so many gods. I’ve witnessed extreme poverty, extreme wealth, malevolence, misguided benevolence, domestic violence, utter selflessness, the most astonishing natural beauty, true love, addiction, corruption. I’ve nearly died, nearly been raped, nearly decided never to come home. But here I am, on the most average of days, sitting on a roof with a woman named Amy, deciding whether or not we will be friends.
Amy is twenty-six. She has pigtails and two bruises under her eyes. She plays guitar and speaks German and likes girls, and we should have lot in common but we don’t. Every time I voice my opinions she jerks away from me, as though something I’ve said hurts her, and finally I confront her about it.
“It’s just that you’re so young,” she says. “I did a lot of really stupid things when I was your age, and being around you reminds me of that. I guess I’m just not so naive anymore.”
I never hang out with Amy again after this, but I think of her as one of my great teachers. I vow to hold on to my naivete, to cultivate it. I know that it makes me seem childish. I know it’s an insult to the pain I have witnessed traveling this world. And. But. Also. I refuse to shut down. I refuse to turn away because it’s too hard. With radical naivete, with radical empathy, openly and honestly and with the innocence of a child, I will look that pain in the eye. Because there is a star in every apple, and there is a wounded child inside every stony glance.
So I come to Goa. Twenty-two years old, tired, my edges frayed into a greater tapestry of being. I came here with seven friends in the trunk of a car made to seat four. For a long time, I will think of this week as the best few days of my life. We, the intrepid youth, venture to the beach, and I strike out on my own far out into the low-tide rocks. There is a breeze blowing here, on this piece of the Arabian Sea, a breeze that is one with every other breeze on every other beach. I think big thoughts. I think about apple orchards and notable strangers. Maybe I lose track of time a little, because Arundhati ventures after me onto the rocks. She grabs my arm.
“Come back to us,” she says. She quotes a Disney movie. “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind.”
In a few days, some very important people will mail me a diploma. A few days after that, I will tear through the envelope and slide out that flaccid piece of paper. Maybe I will hang it up. Before I wrote this, I knew that paper wouldn’t reflect what I’ve truly learned. Now, what began as an arbitrary framing device for a reflection essay I didn’t know how to write becomes a real way to conceptualize my education: a star inside an apple. Invisible, wrapped up in other things, like a simile for a metaphor. I don’t quite know what that means, because I’m small and new, but I think I’ll figure it out.