Every moment in my last few days at Shanti Bhavan was a high and a low. I tried to steer clear of thinking about “lasts,” but sometimes they’re unavoidable. From listening to my last school song on Friday morning to hosting my last leadership group Sunday night, it was impossible to believe my days as a Shanti Bhavan On Site administrator were coming to a close. Even my last plate of rice for breakfast felt a little nostalgic. But, it was important for me not to focus on the lasts, and instead to focus on the moments themselves. In my final weekend I went out to the Farm to pull weeds with the kids (their least favorite task) and had an awesome run with my work out squad. Everything operated as usual. Change didn’t feel real.
Since I wouldn’t be around for their holidays I wanted to offer the school some of my own memories before I left. Christmas is a typical time for cookies, but almost every holiday when I was little would be spent in my grandmother’s kitchen frosting and decorating cookies shaped like hearts for Valentine’s day, flags for the 4th of July, pumpkins for Halloween, snowmen, reindeer, the list goes on. So, on Sunday afternoon, I made around 50 dozen cut-out cookies for special snack. My grandmother’s recipe held up to a huge increase in batter size and metric equivalents, even without uniquely shaped cookie cutters. The mixer was broken, so I have to send out a HUGE thanks to the incredibly strong kitchen boys who beat the sugar and butter together and mixed the incredibly sticky and heavy dough with their bare hands. We pulled the cookies fresh out of the oven and let each of the kids decorate their own with icing and sprinkles. It was perfect. But, even then, bringing the essence of my home to Shanti Bhavan as a parting gift, didn’t feel like the end.
Not until I started signing autograph books did I really understand that I would have to say good-bye. The children are used to people coming and going in their lives, and so they all have notebooks for volunteers to sign when they leave. Once I began collecting them my piles got higher and higher. I wanted each note to be special, and covered in the best stickers. Suddenly, signing autograph books became my full time job! Even reflecting on each student and telling them their unique contributions to the world, I didn’t feel like I was really leaving. It didn’t sink in when I spent an hour Monday morning getting dolled up: Shrimathi tied me in to my new sari, Papi delicately gave me a new hairstyle, and girls laughed as I cringed trying to get the Indian eyeliner on. It didn’t hit me when I stood on stage in front of the entire school listening to the kind words my students professed or when I spoke my own reflections to all of them. Instead, it was with the innocent questions and first round of tears that made me think I was capable of boarding that plane.
The 2nd graders told me they didn’t want me to leave, and when I said I didn’t want to either, they asked me very simply “then why are you?” I told them I’d made promises to my family, and ultimately the US government to go to Malaysia next year. Only when I told them that I’d just spent 5 months with them and my friends and family back home only gets to spend 5 weeks with me were they a little more okay with it. When I started college, I promised myself that I would always make it home for Thanksgiving. This year, I had to leave a home and a family in order to be with mine for the holiday. Saying goodbye to the children of Shanti Bhavan was one of the hardest things I’d done in a long time.
Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for years – you get to eat lots of good food with people who are important to you without worrying about gifts – so when I booked a one month stay in the US between international jobs I knew I had to make it home in time for Turkey Day. I was welcomed home by Dulles International Airport’s new high-tech passport control system at customs, an over-priced Starbucks coffee, and the familiar hugs of two loving parents. The next day we joined half of our country on the roads and trekked through the East Coast blizzard out to my brother’s place in Ohio. Even there, in the small town of Wooster, surrounded by college kids who couldn’t make it to their families for the holiday, I felt at home.
The classic saying “home is where the heart is” is a cliché for a reason. We settle in to the comfort zone of bad jokes and easy conversation with the people who know us best. We speak our mind freely or relax into the ease of silence. We let ourselves be fully ourselves, and part of that for me is striking up conversations with a long lost relative and sharing a meal with strangers. My favorite Thanksgivings of years past was when my family gathering included all those around us without a place to celebrate: long time family friends, the neighbors, the guitar player in a band we saw once, you name it. This year, we are those people crashing on the Friendsgiving of my brothers’ life.
The spirit of Thanksgiving is one that permeates all barriers. We put aside our differences and strike up lively conversation with those around us. The mehindi (henna design) that covers every limb of my body might look weird, or culturally insensitive, or might even extend to cultural appropriation in some eyes. It could have resulted in judged conversation, but instead lead to the birth of new friendship. To me it is loving reminder of the hard work and thoughtfulness my students performed every day. I point the peacock on my right forearm, think of the hour it took Sowmani to design, and tell how she would spend hours in my office asking questions seeking to deepen her understanding of self and the world around her. I look at the paisley on my left hand and tell whoever will listen about the time Preetha overcame her life-long fear of heights with the encouragement of me and her classmates to rappel down a large rock. I stare at my feet only hear the echoes of Viji and Shri swearing that they’re not good at mehindi design, and smile as I remember the other talents they uncovered this year.
My Thanksgiving mates learned these small stories and let my worlds collide momentarily in some miniscule, beautiful way. Truth be told, Thanksgiving is not a holiday without gifts. Coming home for the holiday is a gift to my parents and having everyone together this year is a gift to myself. Whether you were back in your childhood house, on a long road trip with family, hosting a potluck Friendsgiving, or celebrating half-way around the world, I encourage you take a moment to think of what home means to you. Be thankful for the family (in every stretch of the word) that you have near and far, and be grateful for the gifts they all bring to the Thanksgiving table.
In that last Sunday night leadership club meeting my girls and I left parting words for each other. They each told me one thing they’d learned from me and then passed “Oh the Places You’ll Go” around the room for group story time. I left them with our readings from the year and a few of my favorite quotes, one of which is “Change is hard because we overestimate what we have and underestimate what we will get.” This has been a favorite since high school, but it didn’t help describe why change felt so unreal even past the moment I left. Why, when the kids had been saying plenty of things to make me cry but I assured them that there was no need for tears since I’d be coming back, did I lose it when I finally stepped foot in the Doha airport and realized that sure enough change was happening?
Change is hard because of fear, and it is made easier because of love. Certainly we embellish what we have when we don’t want it to change. I am not under any allusion that my time at Shanti Bhavan was always a fairytale, I worked harder than I probably ever have in my life. But, it was my fairytale. Leaving that place was hard not because I had built up all the good moments in my head and brushed all the challenging ones under the rug. It was hard because I feared the impact it would have on my kids, I feared losing touch with their lives and not seeing who they become, I feared my initiatives disappearing, I feared forgetting. But, the quote was right, I underestimated the power of love, and Thanksgiving was the perfect reminder. Love heals all battles, and with my family and friends as my foundation, I trust to embrace all those fears, beat back re-verse culture shock, and continue to grow in the one month I have at this home.