Category Archives: art

gone to the printers

I think this might be like arriving at base camp at the foot of Everest

I know its an awful lot like being 37 weeks pregnant.

maybe you dreamed of it

surely you worked for it

but as the time nears

you realize, increasingly

that you have absolutely no idea

what you’ve gotten yourself into

 

and the dark clouds form and disperse

as you reckon the size of the leap

you have made

peering at the place you think you’re going to land

readying the things you think you’ll need

asking for mentors, safety nets

realizing that when you need financial security more than ever you are sloughing it off

to pit yourself against the challenge

of doing this thing

and doing it well

aprons and layers falling

revealing the dream vulnerable to the raw air:

 

I,

Writer

terrified, quaking, tired and certain

there is no perfect draft, there is no truly ready time

the story is past due

 

and gone to the printers.

finally finished, and only just begun.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West.  November 2014

 

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ask questions. people will tell you their stories if you promise
to listen
roll “history” around in your mouth
and see how it sounds when you say it out loud

test it out for righteousness
and the metallic taste of propaganda
coated in sugar

understand that the difference between those hours and these is not a flat timeline

the past inhabits the present
and the present inhabits the future

and you feel your familiar ghosts crowding in;
unknown ancestors
dreams of your former self
storied poets
anonymous nannies
and private photographers
college dreams
and immigrant fantasies,

Americana writ thickly across the land

and you in the midst of it
becoming a part of the past

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Everyone is Careening, she pointed out

careen: [From French (en) carène, (on) the keel,  see kar- in Indo-European roots.] 

 To lean to one side, as a ship sailing in the wind.

—–

Everyone is Careening,

she pointed out

and it was precisely the right word.

overworked and underslept and sorting through a whole slough of

philosophies

on child rearing and relationships and gender and equality and economies

Saturn is looping back around

to the place in the Milky Way it occupied

when we were all ushered into these lives,

we dialed rotary phones as children

encountered sex in the teenage years of HIV

and attained legal drinking age as the ashes of September 11 settled

now we are making our way into our Thirties

with our smartphones and our student loans

and our conviction that Capitalism is pretty violent

and we are in Bed

with it

whether we like it or not

our friends are going ex-pat in droves

and the planets are doing that thing they do

and we are getting married

and attaining graduate degrees

and divorcing

and bringing up kids

and making art

and thinking about where our food comes from

and walking away from mortgages

and kicking habits

and lobbying senators

and angling for book contracts

and still slinging food,

and trying to cobble together an updated version

of the Beatnik Dream

We are trying to meditate more

We would like to see some changes

we eschew “establishment”  morals

but we are becoming our own establishment

even as we seek to change the one we have been given

we are looking for bliss and also sustainability

we understand it could all end tomorrow

but if it don’t, there’s going to be a real shortage of

clean water

and so we polish our post-apocalpytic skillsets

and make it up as we go.

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Letting in the Light

 

America is a nation prone to forgetting. We’d prefer not to dwell on the difficult and controversial past, when the American Dream dangles glittering on the future horizon. We privilege only particular stories for remembering, and we retell them in ways that leave out many things, in order that the Dream may continue to seem possible. Yet, despite our best efforts to look forward, the things we’ve forgotten persist. Every now and then, someone diligent excavates them from the shadows, and we are given the opportunity to see something difficult and real about America. If we do not look away, we may make real progress toward realizing the things about America we’ve been promised.  We may even have a chance to make art.

In south downtown Seattle, in the shadow of the sports stadiums and skyscraper bank offices, there is an old brick building tucked at the junction of Airport Way and the Interstate 90 on-ramp. Vacant for the past seven years, its rooms have a fine layer of dust, and the hallways are thick with ghosts, some dating back as far as the 1930s.  For nearly eighty years, this building has been known as the United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This past weekend, music and voices echoed through the halls of the building.  Dancers were warming up in old offices, and artists were hanging their work on the walls. Seattle’s old INS building has a new name, and forgotten stories are being invited into the light.  Welcome to INSCAPE: “Seattle’s former INS building redefined by Culture, Arts, Preservation, and Engagement.”  INSCAPE’s mission?  To

[pay] respect to the history of the former INS Building and the people who made that history, the incredible structure and its bipolar spirit, the triumphs of those who became citizens and the tribulations of those who did not, the joys and sorrows that manifested the unique nature of this edifice.  INSCAPE creates a forum for possibilities; a collaboration with artists and artisans, creative individuals and organizations, the neighborhood and the city, to build a mutually supportive alliance that engages the Greater Seattle community in the experience of art and the celebration of culture.  INSCAPE reinvigorates the building and the neighborhood, bringing new life to the district with a renewed spirit created by the investment of the entire community in culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

INSCAPE will host 125 tenants in nearly eighty-thousand square feet of space, making it “the largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle.”  The name demonstrates the founders’ commitment to remembering what the building was.  It also speaks to their desire to look forward, generating collaboration and community via interdisciplinary artistic expression.  They define INSCAPE in three ways:

noun: the essential, distinctive, and revelatory quality of a person, place, or object; the distinctive, dynamic design that constitutes individual identity, especially as expressed in artistic work.

verb: to bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.

building: a collaboration of creative people and organizations, brought together by a vision of artistic and cultural expression in all disciplines, to form a community that expresses its essential nature through culture, arts, preservation, and engagement.

On October 16 and 17, INSCAPE threw wide the windows and let the fresh air of a sunny October weekend flood in to the old INS building for “Passages,” an open house dedicated to inviting the public to help explore the “past history and future possibility of the building.”

My husband and I visited INSCAPE on Sunday.  As residents of South Seattle, we regularly utilize Airport Way to get into the city, but neither of us could picture the building we’d seen on the INSCAPE website.  As my husband drove, I looked up the address on his phone.  “Its right next to the stadiums,” I told him.  “On Airport Way? Really?” he asked, eyebrows raised.  Once we found it, we were both a little shocked we’d never noticed it before.  Its redbrown roof is visible from the freeway, and up close, the former INS building is no podunk anonymous office building.  Its a formidable four-story structure spanning the better part of a block, replete with dozens of artistic flourishes popular in 1930s American architecture.  We stood on the sidewalk staring up at the neoclassical marble columns and Art Deco sunbursts over the arched windows and wondered how we’d missed it in all our years in the city.  We’ve lived here for over ten years between us, members of our families have called Seattle home for decades, and not one of us had ever walked through the doors of 815 Airport Way.

This is how it goes with government buildings for those of us privileged enough to never have to set foot in them.  They’re just part of the landscape.  Not so for those like artist and filmmaker Ladan Yalzadeh, who emigrated to the United States from Iran with her father as a teenager in 1986.  One of the visionaries behind INSCAPE, Yalzadeh was herself processed in the building in 1995, and she spent the weekend giving guided tours.  She led our group out of the lobby to stand on the sidewalk for the beginning of the tour.  After pointing out some of the architectural elements of the building, she gestured down the sidewalk, and urged us to imagine hundreds of people lined up out front.  “Rain, shine, snow, whatever.  All year round, all hoping to make it inside.  If you were lucky enough to make it to the door, you were greeted by a very unfriendly guard, and things generally went downhill from there.”

We followed her inside, where we were confronted by the dangling black silhouette letters of an installation by artist Katy Krantz, paying homage to the dozens of nationalities that made their way through the INS building’s bureaucratic corridors.

The letters danced and quivered in the draft from the open door, casting flickering shadows on the brick walls.  The installation created a vivid and unsettling presence, a fitting invocation of the thousands of stories that played out here, remembered only by those who lived them.  Sometimes the American Dream turns out great.  Sometimes it gets you deported.  Carrying my infant son through the letters, I felt painfully aware of my privilege.

As we began to walk the halls, we paused at printed squares on the floors, designed by artist Christian French, (also the main curator for the “Passages,”) to resemble spaces in a board game.

Turns out, getting in on the American Dream isn’t quite as simple as showing up and working hard.  In recent years, immigration-reform advocates have been fond of saying they welcome immigrants who are willing to follow the rules and come here legally.  The problem is, we keep changing the rules. We’ve been changing them for over a hundred and thirty years, and pretty much every country of origin has taken its turn on the thumbs down list at one point or another.

If the number of Americans who straightfacedly assert their family tree dates back to the Mayflower is accurate, then that pilgrim vessel had the passenger capacity of a fleet of Boeing Dreamliners. Despite the intensely American desire to have gotten Here First, most of us came much later, and received varying degrees of welcome when we did.  Many of the ethnic groups that seem “uniquely American” today were much less popular in previous generations.  Irish, Jewish, or Italian in your family tree?  In the late 1900s, you wouldn’t have been considered white.  Germans found themselves pretty unpopular roundabout WWI (and WWII didn’t help matters much) and Mexicans have been imported (ever heard of the Bracero program?) and exported by the US government at will depending on our need for cheap labor.  The truth is, America has always been a nation of immigrants, and xenophobic immigration policies have come and gone as regularly as the tides.  Unless your family has access to education, funds, and happens to arrive at the right time (read: your country of origin is in favor at the moment), the American dream of “legal” status is about as elusive as the one where you land in the White House.

Ladan spent her fair share of time waiting in lines, but as she gratefully acknowledged, she came here with the advantages of having already gained legal access.  She showed us Room 121, where she was processed for citizenship back in 1995.  She remembered how unsettling it was, even though she’d done everything by the book.  As part of her naturalization interview, she was asked to declare whether or not she was a Communist, and if she had AIDS.  A Canadian man on our tour added that as part of his green card interview several years ago, he was asked to declare whether or not he was a homosexual.  After demonstrating her English proficiency by writing “I love America” on a scrap of paper, Ladan was approved for U.S. citizenship.

As we made our way through the building, art installations and Ladan’s tour began to  fill the empty hallways and offices with a narrative of history and personal experience.  We were guided through the “Oriental” women’s dormitory and the “Detainee Booking” area, the tiny barber shop and the infirmary and childrens’ dormitories.  An artist had strung muslin sheets from the ceiling to recreate bunkbeds in what was once the “Chinese boy’s Dormitory;” through the windows, sun poured in, and the sports stadiums were visible nearby.  The pile of bars that previously flanked the dormitory windows were visible in the old exercise yard.  While its been almost a century since the wave of Chinese immigration that gave this room its name, young immigrants from other countries were confined here in the last decade.  I wondered if they were cognizant of the fact that American citizens were eating hot dogs at baseball games only a stones throw away.

Artist's recreation of the Chinese boys' dormitory

Grates that previously barred the windows

When we visited the exercise courtyard, we spotted something that may well have inspired Krantz’s installation on the main floor: the names and home countries of dozens of detainees, marked on the walls in black letters.  The ink?  Sun-melted tar, scraped from the corners of the courtyard by detainees on warm days.  Looking at the pile of bars, I couldn’t help but wonder if calling them detainees was just a semantic nicety.  Here, thousands of people who came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their children were held prisoner, until such time as the complex bureaucracy deemed them admissable or shipped them back where they came from.  Granted, some who attempt to come to America have dark pasts, or commit criminal acts while in this country, making their deportation seem legitimate.   Others lived here for years, raised children born as American citizens, paid taxes, went to church and worked two or three jobs at once to make ends meet, trying for years to attain citizenship, only to be deported after decades to a country their children knew only by way of stories.  The vast majority of people who spent time in the old INS building were no different from my great-grandparents, or yours.  They came here—and continue to come here—looking for their shot at the American dream.

The visiting area. Looks an awful lot like a prison.

The final stop on our tour was the basement of the building.  Here, the degree to which we have criminalized immigration was painfully clear.

Ladan Yalzadeh (in blue and white shirt) explains how detainees were told to follow the yellow line, much like in a prison, for processing.

The room behind the door held solitary confinement cells.

Before passing through the door, immigrants were ordered to place their hands on the prints for patdowns. I couldn't help but think of the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."

The interior of a solitary confinement cell.

Our tour ended in the basement.  The group broke up and scattered to wander the art spaces in the rest of the building.  We stared at the dusty cell for a while before we climbed the stairs back into the daylight.  On the first floor, we visited the studios of artist Alica Tormey, whose mixed media paintings glowed in the warm sunlight flooding through the southfacing windows.  Dancers from the Manifold Motion group were giving previews of a performance they’ll be putting on throughout the month of November, dedicated to dance interpretations of moss and dirt and mold.  On the third floor, a wacky game of “apocalyptic miniature golf” was underway.

In inviting us in, the creators of INSCAPE are asking Seattle to see both the art and the walls behind it.  This INS building may have been decommissioned, but there are others like it all over the country, and the stories that take place behind their walls have been in the shadows for too long.   The folks behind INSCAPE aren’t out to change US immigration policy or throw open the borders.  They’re here to promote art, to “bring together the unique, essential qualities of many individuals to form a cohesive, distinct community.”  Sounds like a recipe for America.

* * *

If you’re interested in visiting INSCAPE, getting involved, or leasing a space, contact Sam Farrazaino at 206.257.3022 or www.inscapearts.org.  If you or anyone you know has a story about the old INS building, contact Ladan Yalzadeh.

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a laundry list of inspiring bits.

Travels with Owl, a new blog from Samantha Claire…

There are days when OWL naps beautifully, his mouth relaxingly puckered in sleep as he ghost-feeds, perfect child’s pose.  I shower.  I meditate.  Wash the remaining breakfast dishes.  He awakens in giggles and I find him surrounded by books he’s pulled off the shelf that’s bolted to the wall of his walk-in-closet-turned-bedroom.  We walk slowly & deliberately to the grocery store, cook dinner, and dance to Leonard Cohen or Dolly Parton, his tiny feet on my mine as we move slowly & deliberately, mindfully & with love.  We hike & camp.  Ride the buses & trains.  He loads the dryer while I fish for quarters.  He says noodle and turtle and thank you.  And it really cannot get any better that.

Pearl Nelson, a Mississippi White Trash Girl, a collection of poetry and musings from Pearl Nelson….

(from “Walking in the dark around the pond”)

I wonder aloud if the raccoons and deer
and all the other song-less creatures
wish everyone would just shut up.
Not me. I especially love the frogs
who bleat like newborn lambs.
and the old grandmother crickets with
rusty worn out summer voices. And you
when you tell me about your day.

Turning the Mind into an Ally, a book by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

What we call ‘war’ is a series of calamities arising from beliefs and opinions, which are always subject to change. What we call ‘peace’ is the absence of aggression, a tenuous state. When it is winter, summer no longer exists. We organize our life around the concept of a solid self in a solid world, even though all of it is simply ideas and forms coming in and out of existence, like thousands of stars flickering in the night. … Contemplating impermanence can be a liberating experience, one that brings both sobriety and joy. In essence, we become less attached. We realize we can’t really have anything. We have money and then its gone; we have sadness and then its gone. No matter how we want to cling to our loved ones, by nature every relationship is a meeting and a parting. This doesn’t mean we have less love. It means we have less fixation, less pain. …We’ve learned to look at what’s in front of us. 149-50.

From my garden

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birthplaces

We’ve moved into “anytime now” mode.  I regard every kick, every cramp, every shift the baby undertakes with new fascination, and I nap as if I’m making a career out of it.  Ryan’s been reading bedtime stories to my belly, and the dog never strays more than a few feet from my side.  It’s a dear time, quiet and unhurried. Hard to believe one can be pregnant for forty weeks; harder still to believe its possible to feel this good at the finish line.

A few weeks ago,  our birth class instructor asked us to do birth art.   Despite our mutual enthusiasm for art, we felt a little odd about doing art about birth after a guided visualization sitting on the floor in a tiny room crowded with 14 other people.  I had trouble focusing on an “image of birth,” and midway through the instructor’s visualization,  I realized I’d spiralled off into a reverie about our trip to India last summer, and was contentedly imagining sunrise over the Ganges, and mornings drinking black tea in our little room in the Himalayan foothills.  When the birth class instructor told us to pick up our art supplies and render our images, I was thinking about mist and blue water, and green leaves and bamboo silhouettes in the fog.

“What are we supposed to be drawing?” Ryan whispered in my ear.  I grinned at him.  “Dunno, really. Our concepts of birth?”

I figured the soft colors floating around in my head were as good a thing to draw as any, so i peeled the wrapper off a blue pastel and swirled the entire length of the crayon in concentric circles. Realized that in thinking about water and mist in India, I’d begun to picture our birth tub in my head, and the place its going to be set up in our living room when I go into labor.  Realized that in thinking about greens, and plants in mist, I might also be thinking about the maple in full leaf right outside our livingroom window, and how I would perhaps be able to see it from the birth tub.  Started playing with the green pastels.

Looked over to see Ryan sketching out a square pool of water and a tree, and realized I knew exactly what he was drawing. Realized, somewhat startled, that we were in fact, drawing the same thing.  Sort of.

Birthplaces.

I was drawing my conception of a tranquil birth space, one situated in our cosy little house with a pool of water and windows looking into the trees.  Ryan was drawing a similarly tranquil birth space, also featuring a pool of water and plenty of trees,  one also rooted in memories of our travels in India last summer.  His was a place where a birth had already occurred : a sacred and well-marked spot outside of the tiny village of Lumbini, Nepal, where a woman named Maya Devi gave birth to a son she named Siddhartha, sometime around 500 BCE.  Siddhartha would become known as the historical Buddha, and thousands upon thousands of pilgrims would venture to the site of his birth in the centuries that followed.

ruins of ancient monastaries on the site of Siddhartha's birth

The site of the birth, partially excavated, is protected from the elements by a simple roof and unadorned walls, and a wooden boardwalk allows pilgrims to circambulate the site in meditation.  We visited Lumbini in the monsoon, and the air inside the birth-site smelled of damp and dust.  We stood at the site, staring up at a carving of the birth scene, installed on the site many years later by a Buddhist emperor paying tribute.  Maya Devi labored standing up, supporting herself from a tree branch, with her attendants close by.  In the carving of the birth scene, the infant is shown just before the mother, seated on a lotus blossom.     I stared up at the carving of the laboring woman, and noticed that so many pilgrims had touched their hands to the stone in reverence, her face had been worn off, as had the face of the infant Buddha.  They were a mother and her son, not royalty or spiritual leader incarnate.  The birth that happened here was, for all intents and purposes, as ordinary as it was sacred, a quality I felt certain the Buddha would underscore were he here to converse on the matter.

I wandered back outside to stand in front of the pool, built to commemorate the pond in the woods the mother had bathed in after giving birth.  The water was still, disturbed only by the occasional raindrop and the slow-moving ripples of turtles swimming beneath the surface.  A giant bodhi tree branched out over the pool, grown from a cutting of the tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. A little girl and her father were tending the shrine under the tree, and offering incense to the pilgrims in exchange for donations.

We spent three days in Lumbini.  In the calm and quiet of that little village, and hours upon hours spent wandering the massive peace park dedicated to the Buddha’s birthplace, we had conversations about our visions and fears and hopes around becoming parents together.  We shared delicious food in a restaurant in which we were the only customers at nearly every meal.  We listened to the rain, and bought incense and umbrellas from the tiny shops on the street.  By the time we left, we had decided we were ready to bring a child into the world.

When I saw Ryan drawing the pool at Lumbini, our time there, and the significance of it, came flooding back to me in a wave.  The next day I had prints made of the tree and the pool, and I hung them around our house so we could be reminded of that tranquil place as we bring our son into the world.

Dove back into my India journals to re-experience the memories more vividly… excerpts below for anyone who wants a little vicarious time abroad.

Boarded a train in Varanasi to Gorakhpur, experiencing our first taste of “sleeper class.”  no AC here, and close quarters with other passengers after the busy stops.  We sit as still as we can, sweating and watching an exquisite sunset unroll across the countryside,  glowing on dozens of kids laughing and throwing their weight into makeshift swings hung from trees with bicycle tires tied together…

6 long hours later, we pull into Gorakhpur… get a room for the night, then hire a taxi to take us to the India-Nepal border in the morning.  Walk across the border in the rain, our first taste of monsoon.  its a dry year, we’ve been told… we experienced no rain up till now in the other places we have been.  It is creating great pressure across the countryside, as farmers cannot plant their rice until there is adequate water.

We get our visas in order and our passports stamped, and hire another taxi to take us the rest of the way to Lumbini, the village on the site where the historical Buddha, Siddhartha, was born.  The countryside is rich, verdant green, and the rain is pretty much constant.  Our taxi driver leans out the window every now and then to wipe the rain from the windshield with a rag, as the wipers are apparently not in working order.  Mango trees, more kids on makeshift swings, tiny brick abodes with bright laundry dripping in the rain and each home with a water buffalo tied in the yard eating from the center of an old tire.  Around 11 we arrive in Lumbini, a tiny village with only one main street, and a quiet one at that, more traffic from herds of goats and cows and water buffalo than anything with an engine.

take a tiny, dear room on a 3rd floor balcony, looking out over the rice paddies.  discover, as the hours pass, that monsoon has arrived in this part of southern Nepal in earnest.  it rains at all times of the day here, sometimes slow and steady, sometimes hard and fast… riotous birdsong all the time, and the power is out as often as it is on.  its cooler here than it was in India, which we’re grateful for, but the humidity is still very high.  If we get wet in the rain, our clothing does not dry, and we realize we’re going to have to buy umbrellas, as we’ve only got a few sets of clothes each.

In the late afternoon, we rent bicycles from our hostel and pedal down the short road and through the gates of the international peace park built around the site of Buddha’s birthplace.  Its late day and we simply want to get a feel for the place, so we pedal down the narrow dirt roads, through tall grasses and past still, quiet ponds and slow moving rivers.  There are beautiful monasteries from a dozen countries set back in the trees as we go, and giant white cranes flap slowly overhead every now and then, on the wing from the crane sanctuary at the south end of the park.  We are pedalling along a brick path lining a long pond when the monsoon begins again in earnest…

we take shelter for a while under a thatched hut and listen to the downpour, watch it soaking into the dirt road and running down the tall stalks of grass, tiny beads sliding along the fibers of the thatched roof, piling onto each other until their weight becomes too much and they carry themselves downward to splash up again from the puddles below…

calm suffuses this place, and we drink it in.  The park alone would be something indeed, but to know the story that is rooted here, the birthplace, literally, of a spiritual tradition dating back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ… a tradition rooted in contemplation, in this very landscape.  There is meaning in the damp air and the muddied earth that settles into your bones and asks for your heart to consider it.

Realizing the monsoon isn’t letting up, we venture out from under the roof into the torrent and climb onto our bikes… i pocket my glasses, useless in this sort of rain, and the landscape’s edges blur into softness, green on brick on greysky. we pedal through the mud and the puddles, laughing and grinning like fools… soaked through, and no reason to care, the rain is warm and we’ve got no where to be.

my kind of honeymoon, i holler to Ryan, wiping the sheets of water from my forehead and eyes

he grins back

we splash along the road near the entrance,

locals smile at us and shout namaste as we pass.

In the village, I try to bargain with a woman shopkeeper for a set of black umbrellas.  She doesn’t speak much english, and calls her husband out to help translate.  Since my negotiations appear to be failing, I decide to attempt the “walkaway,” and tell them I don’t think I should spend so much, and am going to ask my husband.  Her husband begins to laugh. “She never asks me what I think.  This is her business.”  I grin back, impressed by her chutzpah, and pay full price for the umbrellas.

That night, we take cool bucket showers in our tiled bathroom and then spend the evening reading on our beds before the open windows, watching the endless raindrops soaking into the rice paddies.

The next morning, we walk down muddy paths, rain thudding onto our umbrellas and cascading down around our feet.  White cranes flap overhead, wide-faced water buffalo feed in the tall grass.

As we attempt to visit monasteries, we are turned back by closed gates and flooded paths, but make our way anyway, by walking. Walking, walking.  Two thousand years of pilgrims here, prayers, contemplation in this place.  Even though I hesitate a bit to call myself a pilgrim, I begin to feel it in my body, my subconscious.  Mind softens, quiets.  Feet sting, where blisters are opening under wet sandal straps.  We keep walking.  The rain keeps falling.  Cranes flap overhead.  At the monasteries, we shed our shoes and walk barefoot over smooth marble and stone paths, made slick by sheets of flowing rainwater.  It feels divine on aching feet.  Monks sitting under monastery eves laugh and watch the monsoon.  Others chant softly in the temples.  We find our own sanctuary from the rain, and unwrap the newspaper from a pile of samosas I’d bought earlier from a street vendor, lost in the sound of the unceasing rain.

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