Excerpt from One Breath, Then Another
I was sitting in the back of a parked bicycle rickshaw, waiting to leave the Ganges, when a woman approached me. With her dirty face and sari, holding a dirty sleeping baby naked from the waist down, she looked me in the eye, extended her cupped palm toward me for money, then raised her hand to her mouth. I could see sores on her baby’s legs. She reached her hand toward me and pulled at my sleeve, reached her hand back up to her mouth, pointed to the baby, and lifted up his shirt to show me his skeletal frame. Crying and muttering unintelligibly, she grabbed my sleeve again, yanking this time, hand back up to her mouth, desperate. It was thirty seconds extending into eternity and I sat paralyzed.
I tried not to look at her and her child, but was incapable of not looking. I stared at them, unable to fully process that she was real, her baby was real, India was real. This all existed in the same time continuum as New York City, as the United States.
I held my breath, tensed every muscle in my body. She continued yanking on my sleeve, crying, muttering. The baby’s head hung off his neck unsupported. Just when I felt like my heart might really explode, shooting all my fleshy bits out across the city of Varanasi, the rickshaw pulled away and I left her standing there. She disappeared behind the torrent of buses, rickshaws, cars, dust clouds, cows, cow shit, goats, pedestrians, flies, women sitting sideways on the backs of motorcycles- bright saris flapping and flying, honking horns, no one wears shoes here.
At 5 am the next morning, feeling twitchy and exhausted, I boarded a bus with the word “Tourist” splayed across the top of the windshield. The ride from Varanasi, India to Lumbini, Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha), would take twelve hours. We passed heaps of muddy garbage, goats and cows, handmade huts, laundry hanging out to dry, dirty men in rags with sores on their legs, defecating beside cows defecating. As the bus bumped down the potholed road, the girls behind me whined, "I'm going to be sick," and then the girls behind them, "Turn off the air conditioning!" So the air went off; suddenly it was stuffy and smelled like rotten bananas and human feces.
Meanwhile, all my desires were crawling through me alongside the crawling scenery: I want to publish a book, perform a solo show, find love. These wants felt like twisting knives in my heart, so intense. Why was it so painful to want these things? And why were these desires attacking me then and there?
I looked out the window at two small children walking nearby, an older brother holding his younger sister’s hand, both of them laughing. She was wearing her hair in pigtails, like I used to at her age. But she was not wearing shoes and her clothes were tattered and torn. Her smile beamed. I dug my nails into my forearms. I am lucky, I reminded myself. But my desires didn't care; I felt them wrapping their fingers around my neck.
I leaned my head against the window and thought about how I’d signed up to sponsor a child in India. Two weeks before my departure, after buying my plane ticket and booking the tour, I had gotten off work and didn’t feel like going home yet, so I sat on a curb in Union Square to meditate on the flurry of frantic pedestrians. There was a man standing in front of me in a blue Children’s International t-shirt. He was doing the normal guerilla street marketing, "Do you have a minute for the children?" Of course, no one had a minute. I was sympathetic to the passersby; I don't usually like being attacked by people and their causes when I am rushing somewhere. After fifteen minutes of watching that guy get rejected, I called out to him, “Hey, I have a minute for the children, tell me about them.” I knew I had done myself in.
He sat down beside me on the curb, and pulled out his binder, flipping through pictures of skinny smiling children from impoverished countries.
“For twenty-two dollars a month, this child can receive health care and go to school. Come on,” he said, “How much money do you just drop on a night out?”
I had emptied my bank account, cashed all the bonds I’d saved from relatives since childhood and accepted a generous financial contribution from my mother, spending thousands of dollars to travel to a place where people were struggling to meet their basic needs. I was quitting my job and uncertain about my financial future, but come on, just twenty-two dollars a month. Later that week, I received my welcome packet with a photo of Bikash Kayal, age nine. He speaks Bengali and enjoys studying languages, playing with friends, and drawing.
With my head still against the window, I squeezed my eyes shut and repeated, I am lucky, as my cravings continued to slither relentlessly inside my skin: head to neck to shoulders, torso, hips, knees, toes, like a snake sliding up and down, down and up, hissing.
Staring out the window of the bus with trash, shit, and crumbling structures everywhere, I prayed for self-actualization. That was my ultimate craving. May I work toward my goals with peace and grace, may the pain from these desires cease.
Buddha said suffering is caused by craving and he preached the middle way: Become master over your cravings and you will reach nirvana.
I shut my eyes. My head bumped as the bus bumped. “Get some sleep,” some voice from somewhere whispered, “The rocket will be at your door before sunrise to shoot you straight up to heaven.”