Friday, January 30, 2015

To Be of Use

Thin crescent moon rising just south of the scorpion on the horizon; 5:30 am, black sky, desert cold. We went to the kitchen to begin to help with breakfast preparation. Several students were there already, working with Binoy. The fire underneath the mass-heater barrel stoves in the corner gave smoke, hanging in a rolling layer above our heads. Jason and I shelled peas, my fingers frozen, working just well enough over cold-water washed pods. “You would like to drink thukpa?” One of the young women served out bowls of hot, hot broth, some dark, rich pulse and dried yak cheese at the bottom of each. I held it in both hands, grateful. Two others began rolling pieces of dough from a central mound into snakes, cutting these into palm-sized lumps, to roll out into tagi, Ladakhi flatbread. The tiny orange cat roamed freely among the pots beneath the central wooden table where we worked. “You have seen the moon? The stars this morning?” Binoy asked as I rose, peas shelled.
There were many small, thick rolling pins, and I joined in making tagi—I felt surprised and pleased by how round and regular they were. This is a Ladakhi art in which I wish for mastery by the time we leave.
We worked until the sun rose, light coming into the small, shadowed kitchen from the window and double doors on the southern wall. Binoy sat by a wide, saucer-shaped griddle, cooking the rounds dry on the iron surface. The girls rolling dough across the table sang or laughed gently and constantly as they worked; students began to fill the common room, drinking tea, strumming open chords on the out-of-tune community guitars, filing in and out of the kitchen yet somehow never in the way. The kitchen is the warm, live heart, hearthfire giving the community a center. Like all communities, maybe.
At nine the first bell rang, calling half of the students to hockey practice and the other half to work, exchanging after an hour. Moving in pairs we carried dry, light brown compost on old grain sacks into the garden. One girl stood at the mound with a shovel and pickaxe, loading the sacks as we returned with them. They dig the toilets out in the summertime, after the chamber is full and walled for at least one year. As dry as it is here, it is hard to see the difference between dust and the richness of the toilet waste, the garden (and all of the fields’) sole input.
After tea at eleven the groups divided again, for English class or English conversation. Jason and I have taken on the class, beginning by teaching Levon Helm’s “This Mountain’s My Home.” I feel humbled, in sight of such mountains as these, to tell the story of the southern Appalachians, of strip mining and mountaintop removal. We work though each verse, line by line, talking about words and concepts before singing all together. There is not a good translation in Ladakhi—there are words for harvesting, but no verb that means anything like “to extract without returning”. “Why do people in America do this?” one young woman asked.

(If you have not read Marge Piercy’s poem by the same title as this entry, by all means, find it and do so!)

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