finding my people

There’s this moment when you

find your people the

ones who breathe your air and speak

your language on lips that

look like yours.

My people, among other things,

wear draped clothing, long

lengths of fabric that swirl around our feet and

promise great things if you have some small



One of those people is Sarees and Stories on Instagram, and she is interviewed here, about saris and wearing them all the time, as daily wear:

I never thought I’d be an Instagram person, but it’s the perfect place for saree/sari stories and pictures.

White Saris on the Fourth of July

I got up today and wasn’t sure what to wear.
I decided to wear the 6 yard length of white muslin I got myself as the most basic of basic saris.
It happens that white is the color of mourning in India, a color typically only worn (by women) as widows or the recently bereaved (or on Holi so you can then have the cool tiedyed look).  (Men wear white a lot; it’s kind of like black in the western world).  (Nonbinary, trans, and genderqueer folks in India is a cultural complexity that has not really been sorted in the clothing department.)
I didn’t think about it until I was pulling it around me, forming the pleats.  The color of mourning.  Huh.  Well, yeah.  Today feels like a not-very-celebratory day.  It feels like a buckle-your-boots-and-get-down-to it day; a day for figuring out how I can do some good in the world, for writing the story of the world and country we all need to read so we can imagine it so we can create it, because what we have is sure as fuck not that…
but it could be.  We can create it.
And that’s the most important part.  We can do it.  We are humans with power and will and brains in our heads and feet in our shoes (thank you Dr. Seuss) and we can do it.
We have been living with a Trojan Horse.  It looked vaguely like a country which lived the values and ideals which it purported to uphold.  But inside it was not only full of enemy soldiers with guns and tiki torches, but carpenter ants, eating away even the frame of the shell itself.
Those carpenter ants were a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, they destroyed what we* thought we had.  On the other hand, they revealed the enemy hiding within and the fragility of the whole mess.
We can holler until the cows come home about how we aren’t now and have never been what we professed.  It’s true.
But this is also a greater moment of opportunity than any time in our history.  We can see it, all of us can see it and hear it and feel it.  This carpenter-ant-and-tiki-torch horror is on the Jumbotron and on the loudspeaker with the extra bass beat and anyone who doesn’t know about it now has deliberately and willfully turned away.  That deliberate rejection of knowledge is unconscionable, it bespeaks a failure of personal and collective and community morals, and we can absolutely judge people by that choice.  Everything is exposed, and it’s about damn time.
Do I wish we had uncovered this putrid mass of filth and destruction earlier?
People have been saying what it was for a long time.
People have been writing and speaking and painting and drawing what it was for a long time.
People have been PAYING WITH THEIR LIVES for the excesses and ignorance of the rest of the people for a long.damn.time.
The problem was, it wasn’t just any people.
It was the very people this culture has been discounting and destroying and turning away from the gates for a long.damn.time.  So this culture went on discounting and destroying, and discounting and destroying, and their voices of warning and righteousness and judgement and remedies got discounted and destroyed and turned away from along with their bodies and their hearts and their children and their needs.
It was your indigenous neighbors and your Black neighbors and your Latinx neighbors and your disabled neighbors and your immigrant neighbors (the ones who were poor and not white), all going along doing nothing but existing…and your trans neighbors and your queer-as-in-revolution, lesbian-when-wearing-mens-clothes-was-illegal, gay-bar-just-got-raided-now-I-need-surgery neighbors.  They knew.  They have known.  They continue to know.
It’s not that hard to describe the people who were discounted and destroyed.
But it’s easier to describe the people who were safe, who had an expectation of being safe and heard:
They were white, usually with some money.
The color of mourning.
That’s interesting.
Anyway, my point is, the information was there, right out there, anyone could get to it.  Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde all called it out–and those are just the ones I can think of without interrupting my writing to go look.
So let’s not “we should have known, I wish we had known.”  Friends.  We could have known collectively what the voices were shouting.  There was some deliberate turning away there.  That was a moral and values decision woven into our culture from our education system on upward.  There was a whole lotta “that can’t be” and “there must be more to the situation”.  There was a giant pile of benefit of the doubt that should not have benefited the people that it did, which was the white upper- and upper-middle-class power holders.
That’s not blame.  That’s just facts.  It happened like that.  The rot was there, people said it, the people who could have done something about it failed to listen to the voices that were right.there, failed because of the very rot and danger that those voices were calling out.  The carpenter ants and the soldiers protected themselves from being known.
Now it’s crumbled.  There’s no protection there anymore.  Now that crumbling structure is hitting some people on the head, and maybe that’s the casualty of that #secondcivilwar we’re being accused of planning.
Because it both is and isn’t a joke.  We are in a fight for our lives, and for the values we wanted to believe everyone around us held all along, even though a lot of them didn’t.
We can do this.  We can build something that is solid and true and real, and not a false idol to false gods or a false monument to a pretend reality.  We can actually be the people we want to be, as a whole, with many parts, e pluribus unum.  Both/and, separate and together.
We can.  But the most powerful of the small groups, the white folks?  You need to get in the game.
There’s an old white lady somewhere who threatened to video record a woman who was threatening to call the police on a couple of black kids selling candy bars.  Be like her.
There’s a bunch of people who got together to raise money to replace the belongings of a homeless guy who had his stuff dumped in a lake by a jogger.  Be like them.
There’s a neighborhood where white folks speak Spanish first to say hello to folks, even if they’re not fluent, because so many people speak Spanish there.  Be like them.
The most powerful change we can make right now is not legislative, it’s cultural.  History teaches us that there is a simultaneous transformation of culture and law required if progress is to take.  That is not to say that we should give up on laws.  But laws don’t change hearts.  People change hearts.  Living changes hearts.  Eventually the change gets so deep that laws to the contrary are literally inconceivable.
The first step is living into it.
We forget this, because we are steeped in a cultural-religious history that believes that coercion and aversion are the only ways to change behavior.  Hell, purgatory, penance–these are designed by people who believe in lots of sticks and no carrots.  But behavioral science tells us otherwise.  Fear-based-compliance fosters resentment and usually leads to recidivism.
True change comes from lived experience of the alternative, comes from compassion, comes from connection.  “The greatest of these is love,” (1 Cor 13) isn’t just some throwaway line.  It’s about the heart of transformation.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
What changes us is our lived, felt, daily, embedded experience.
So if you want to change the country, go live it.  Be the hero you always thought you’d be in the face of supervillains and Nazis.  Fight the bad guys.  Don’t be afraid to know who they are.  Don’t make excuses.  And if you find yourself monologuing, ask yourself which side you’re really on.
Take heart; all is not lost, for we are the people of America, as surely as any, all of us together.  We have only to live that way with deliberate force and determination; we have only to take action for what is right with fierceness and courage; we have only to do what we have already said we will do, over and over, in every day.
Do not lose hope.  Do not lose courage.  Do not lose your ideals.
You have built [them] in the air.  That is where they belong.
Now put foundations under them. (Thoreau).
*many of us have known for a long time that we did not, in fact, have what everyone else thought we had.  But collectively we needed to learn, as a complete body we did not know.  W/we, the greater collective We and the smaller we-s that comprise it are complicated in relationship to each other.

on not-fitting

There was a side gig for which I had four interviews.
I didn’t get it.
I’m not sure how to feel about it.  On the one hand, it would have been good work.  On the other?
On the other I keep getting nudges from the universe to re-expand my work back toward the body of pleasure material, to somehow integrate it.
I keep seeing people who are doing witchy things in corporate spaces. I keep getting told my work is much bigger than the intensives/expansives world. An executive coaching mentorship program I’ve joined has me noticing how some of the conventions of the fb coaching world are contributing to the very problems they want to solve.
Last night I had dinner with two other women clergy friends, (one I’ve known since seminary, and her wife) and my sweetheart.  I again felt that work rising up. I’m seeing how being in spaces where I’m not supposed to talk about or do or be part of myself, including my work, feeds subtle shame about it. It’s making me question the wisdom of conventions and agreements I’ve taken for granted.
In some UU spaces we have tried not to use too much god-language in case it makes non-theists feel alienated. In some clergy spaces it’s not ok to talk about your entrepreneurial ministry, only parish ministry is really allowable, because what if you’re selling to someone?
News flash: sharing the good you have is always selling. It’s always marketing. Those lines get really blurry really fast.  If we don’t get over our aversion to marketing we’re going to miss some important opportunities to share gifts and spaces that are sorely needed.
Which drives me to consider the ways in which hiding is considered virtue.
Why not pray on street corners?
The issue is, are you praying from your own heart? I don’t care if you want to pray in the street. I care that you are praying to live into your prayer.
All this leads me to believe that this is more a problem with our relationship to “no”.
I don’t care if someone offers me {a candy bar, a cup of coffee, a kiss, a belief system} if I know that I can say no or yes freely.
I get anxious when I believe that I am at risk when I say no.
There’s so much involved in that.
There is shame at not being accommodating, which is gender-linked conditioning. There is fear of repercussions: violence or anger or more pressure. There is wanting to be a “good person” and our own stories about what that means, and others’ stories about what it means. There’s how at-risk do I feel generally? Slightly? Very? How do I make myself more safe? How much discomfort can I tolerate?
And of course the other side: how to recieve no. How much grace? How much groundedness? Was this a space where I felt like I could come for validation or evaluation and critique?
Is this a place where I feel my whole self welcomed? Did I expect it to be? How whole is that? Are tears ok? Anger? Pleasure? Joy? What’s the determiner?
What’s the obligation of public and semi-public spaces? Private ones? Paid? Free?
And ultimately, what brings me pleasure? Does it work for me to be in a space where these or those are the bounds? Is what worked for me five years ago going to work now? Or do I need to shed yet another cloak of shame and leave spaces that, in their protection leave me bleeding on the path?
There’s no shame in not fitting in the glass slipper. The shame is cutting off your heel* to make it fit.
*there are many versions of the Cinderella story.  When I was a kid, I had a hobby of learning and telling folktales, so I kind of collected them.  In some of the older versions, when the glass slipper doesn’t fit on the stepsisters, they cut off a part of their foot (toe for one, heel for the other) to force it to work.  Needless to say they get found out and taken back home, their painful sacrifice for naught.

on saris

I started this blog YEARS ago, and wrote a lot about how Indian clothing had influence my thinking, but didn’t talk much about actively wearing it.  There are a lot of reasons for that, but times have changed, and here we are, in 2018, and I am unironically, uncostuming-ly wearing saris as part of my daily wardrobe.

Last year when I went back to India after 17 years, I started wearing saris as…clothes.  Part of that was about weight gain–I simply don’t fit into most RTW kurtas anymore.  Part of that was that I really wanted to practice, and dadi is OLD–97 then, 98 now, 99 in November.  If she’s going to teach me stuff, I have to start engaging the learning process.

Part of it was this blog itself and the thinking that went with it.  Draped clothing is revolutionary, revolutionizing, decolonizing stuff.  It is a radical act to demand that one’s clothing conform to one’s body, but that wasn’t always the case.  The ancient people in most places draped their clothes.  Sewing was a much later and fussier invention, and in many places it was mostly to keep things on the body more easily and not to do with modesty, until later when modesty became a Thing.

But by draping the body in untrammeled fabric, one reclaims the idea that the body sets the rules and the outside forces follow them.  My body is what it is; my sari does what I tell it to do according to my body’s needs.

It is ALSO radical because it doesn’t have this replacement thing going on.  Saris are amazing and gorgeous and I want to collect ALL OF THEM–but I can also wear the ones that my grandmother hands down to me.  I don’t replace them when I gain or lose weight (maybe I have new blouses stitched–that’s a yard of fabric at the outside–or maybe I wear them with other tops in my wardrobe.) and I can wear any sari that someone gives me.  They are a standard size but they fit almost anyone (exceptionally tall and wide people sometimes have a challenge, but even that is a vestige of conformity–six yards is a lot of fabric if you don’t have to make it do something specific).  If there weren’t Right and Wrong ways to drape them, if you allow yourself to improvise, then they can really fit almost anyone.  Drape it short, long, with fewer wraps around the body or more of them, as pants (two ways!) or as a skirt, for elegance, for mobility, so many choices.  And thanks to the internet and a lot of people trained and untrained, we’re no longer hemorrhaging the knowledge when our elders die.  It’s being videoed and documented and written down and a new generation of people is wearing them.  And we are not just wearing new ones (although some of the new ones are STUNNING) but also the ones our grandparents (and aunts) are giving us.

So draped clothing, while it can be very acquisitive (everything fits!) is actually anti-capitalist and pro-handcraft; there’s no waste in a draped garment, and having now spent a year wearing saris a lot more than I used to, I can say with authority that it’s very versatile.  I have saris that I can wear like jeans and saris that I wear as elegant eveningwear.

I don’t usually post images here, for whatever reason, but I’ve been Instagramming my saris, as part of a loose community of people who are reclaiming and reviving them.  So here are a couple of pictures of today’s sari–a nauwari (nine yard) sari traditional in maharashtra and a few other corners of India but much less common than the six yard version.  I’ve draped it as old-school maharashtrian women do, with a lot of pleats in the front that then get pulled through the legs and tucked in the back waist to make a pants-like bifurcated bottom.  I’ve skipped going over my head with the pallu, but have brought it around my waist to tuck it in and keep it in place.  This drape can be very elegant or super practical–today is definitely in the practical camp!

I love wearing saris (this one with a t-shirt, because it’s comfy) when I can wear them my way.  The more worried I am about getting it wrong or getting it right the less able I am to treat them as just clothes.  It’s clothes!  But it’s radical anticapitalist fat friendly mybodybelongstome smash the patriarchy clothes.


NB: The emotional weight of wearing a sari as a diaspora kid in an explicitly antipatriarchal context like the company I choose to keep is WAY DIFFERENT from wearing one if it’s the thing you’re wearing because your mother in law really prefers that you wear one now that you’re a married woman you should dress like one and please no jeans.  The combination of increasing liberation for women in India and massive amounts of privilege is what makes this revival of saris easier. If you can CHOOSE to wear them, they’re fabulous.  If they’re the only thing your husband and inlaws or community allow you to wear, that feels very different.  I do not have the weight of that experience or context sitting on my head when I put one of these on.  To me they are a hug from my grandmother, a release from clothes that don’t often fit right, a way of reclaiming my heritage.  To me all the old drapes that are getting documented and reclaimed are fantastic and innovative and liberationary (is that a word?) because they make it practical to wear saris in a way that the “normal” (nivi) drape does not.  The nivi drape and its attendant rules, when done “properly”, leaves you wearing a floor length gown.  Elegant, but damn near useless if you have to be active.  Women who wear it routinely modify it through their day–tuck it shorter in private spaces and wrap and tuck the loose end at the waist if they’re cooking or tending children, etc.  Many many other drapes are designed to be more practical.  HOWEVER many people of my grandmother’s generation had to adopt the nivi drape in order to become socially mobile.  Old style drapes labeled you as “country” or poor or lower class.  I have the privilege of reaching into the bins in the back of the closet for things that are deserving of visibility and respect and presence that my people could not.  All this context matters, as does the revival itself.  And the right of South Asian and diaspora people to decide how much of this they want, and how much they don’t.

Me?  I want it.

the rules that make it easier to be good

I want the handbasket we’re in

to have a picnic lunch

and bread and brie and a checkered tablecloth

that we can spread on lush grass

in a country that isn’t being bombed

and breathe clean air

and invite the neighbors.


I’m feeling a little doubtful at the moment.

but that’s what I want.

But this is that awkward moment when my blog is about pleasure, ostensibly,

and the world is in this handbasket.

and now what?

And yet, as so many of my thoughtful friends are saying, we need to speak

and we need to name what’s happening: about goodness and right living and integrity and kindness…and the rules that make it easier to be good.

Now when I say good, I mean being the people we believe we can be and making the world the one we want to live in.  I do not mean that we all sit quietly with our hands folded.

Right now, that is the opposite of good.

But some people, who are in charge of some of the rules,

believe in a very different kind of good.



When I was in high school I had a choice of two summer camps.

One had more rules.

One had fewer.

I am generally a person who likes to sleep early and eat well and not do drugs or get drunk.  The easiest way to be that person is to live in a place that holds those things as normative.  The rules make it easy to be good by not putting the pressure on your internal system.  The decision can be blamed on the system.  The system decided this, I’m just following the rules.  But of course I decided to be part of the system.

I chose the camp with more rules because it took the pressure off me.  It was a good choice.

I am trying to figure some things out now: which systems am I choosing to be part of, and how much do they leave the decisions to individuals, how much do they have rules that are shaped by the members?  This is the challenge of consensus and democracy: we choose the decisions together.  Democracy in particular is difficult because we aren’t all in agreement.  We can disagree and still be part of the system.  But if you’re part of the system you are going to participate in the results of the decisions until those decisions are changed.  Unless you and your friends can stand up against it.

Change it.

Force the system to move faster.

As adults, we have more choices.  That’s how our culture is set up.  But we make more compromises.  That’s how our culture trains us.

I was just granted final fellowship in the UUA; I got the letter this week.  This is a kind of tenuring, an admission to the more secure level of ministry.  It has been a long process for me.  Ten years, instead of the usual three.  And it was this week.

This week, as the UUA is turning itself inside out, examining its own systemic bias, at least part of it.  But the more we unpack, the more we find: race, gender, class, ability tumble head over heels as they whole thing reorganizes.  This is an earthquake, needed, but intense.

Intensives are coming to the fore.

Our own struggles with biased leadership are being spoken.

I hope we will never be the same.

Many of us have already tagged out and are trying to decide what kind of return makes sense.  Others of us have been on the edges.  I’m choosing to participate but I’m choosing to be a different kind of participant.  Both/and, that’s my signature location.

How do I do that well?

Part of my call is ministry to those who will not ever cross our UU thresholds.  I don’t blame them.  I also think we still have something to offer.  That’s what community ministry is about.  You have to believe in the offerings of the church more than in the systems.

And yet, I yearn to see our power centers welcome truly diverse and intersectionally-aware and -active voices.

Of course I minister from the margins–that’s where this faith locates me.  It’s also a gift I offer. And if I insist on being centered, there’s a risk, there’s damage, there’s pressure to be something else.

If I weren’t an intensive, I don’t think I’d still be here.

But I am.

I have a stack of things that I didn’t feel I could speak up about until I got final fellowship, and it took a lot longer than I expected.  But I’m here now.  And the stack needs to wait.  Because right now what’s happening is that we need more radically inclusive, deliberately intersectional, POC leadership.  More UUA staff and more senior clergy in all kinds of service, and more senior lay staff in all kinds of service.

This sounds like internal UUA business.  Why am I talking about that while the current US administration is making hash of the laws that support our values?

Because in all these cases, it’s the rules that make it easier to be good.


But they do not MAKE us be good.

Morality, ethics, community that holds us accountable: these are what get us to be good.

If we want a more just and equitable world, then we must act like it, regardless of the rules.

We don’t need rules.

We need each other.

And we need to be good.


india, day 5

Shopping here is a full-contact sport.

Shopping in India isn’t the same as shopping in the US. There’s a vulnerability in being seen and known and attended to, and most of us in the US aren’t comfortable with that.  In the US people want to be left alone, our choices private, our flaws and insecurities cached behind the illusion of anonymity.  But here in India… It is a much more relational experience.  People are used to close relations.  They want to feel attended to, and the clerks—and the system—account for that.
First, you have to picture the shop itself.  Think small, think specialty.  Only saris, or only salwar kameez sets.  Menswear shops will sometimes stock both traditional clothes and western suitings.  (You can of course have anything made to measure, if you want to and have a couple of days.) They target their markets by price and by item.  It’s like shopping in a single department of a department store, with a horde of personal shoppers on staff.
Except not at all.  The shops in a big city will usually be cheek-by-jowl, as in any city, and small.  Now imagine a city jewelry store, only it’s selling tunics.  Glass counters, five staff for twenty linear feet of shop.
Now imagine a bookstore, with bookshelves to the ceilings, only it’s not books, it’s plastic-wrapped tunics of every size and color and fabric.
Total width of the store, fifteen feet or so, less 18 inches on each side for shelving.  Total depth?  Well the apparent depth is probably 20 feet.  But there’s tardis potential in that dimension.
You go in and are seated. If you’re the only customer, they may have to turn on the lights and AC for you. They ask who you’re buying for, one or two more questions, and then start pulling things from the shelves and unfurling them with a flourish before you on the counter.
“This one, ma’am!  Very nice color!  Best quality!”
They start with one or two extremes, because they are trying to guess your taste.
When you shake your head at the overly plain overly garish, overly floral (last night was overly floral—I’m sure someone would look great in it, but it would have made me look like a living room sofa), or whatever thing they started you with, they back up.
“Okay, ma’am.  Not this.  Never this!”  They whisk the offending garment away or cover it up with the next one.  “This one, very nice embroidery.”  Head shake no (remember, a sideways head wiggle here means yes, don’t get it backwards or you’ll send them off in the wrong direction) from you, and they shake out another.  “This one, excellent color ma’am.”  They listen to everything you say (especially if you speak a local language) trying to figure out what they can offer you that will suit.  Even a slight hesitation or tilt of the head will bring an avalanche (remember, these shelves are tall) of similarly-themed options.  Nimble clerks scramble up and down the shelves (built to take the weight, ladders take up too much space) pulling things down as they go.
As a buyer, you’re trying to strike a balance. On the one hand, you want the thing you want.  If they have it, you need them to find it for you.  They need information to do that.  On the other hand, this country has a long legacy of bargaining.  A few places don’t, but many places still do.  So you don’t want to act too interested, because then they won’t come down on price.  Even if you don’t plan to bargain, there’s a pride in not letting them know exactly what you’re thinking.  This is more tennis match than collaborative creative process.
Of course, if you don’t speak the local language (Marathi in Mumbai, although Hindi will do) you’re limited in your communication options.  They usually speak English, but with limited scope.  Way better than my Hindi, though.  I can’t even wrap my head around being trilingual across two language families.
Eventually, they will find something.  If you’re from the US, you have to get over feeling awkward that they’ve shown you fifty items and haven’t found one you want to buy yet.  You have to get used to being seen, being known, and being attended to. Either you get the sense that they don’t stock what you want and you leave, or you let them keep going.  They are nearly tireless and inveterate sales people.
They might have a fitting room, but you’ll have to ask, and go back through three layers of rooms and through an alley you didn’t have a clue about from the front, up and down stairs and more turning on of lights and fans.  If not, you have to guess or measure.
Shopping in groups is normal—feel free to bring a friend—but the salesman will always tell you it looks good, and also that his tailor can make it fit you in just a few minutes, no problem, ma’am.   Check the seam allowances before you believe that it can be let out.  Make your own call.
Also for your judgment: whether “one HUNDRED percent cotton!”is or isn’t. (There is a particular hand gesture that goes with this, for emphasis. There’s no way to translate it.)  Or silk.  Or best quality.  Likely nothing is labeled, and if it is, you probably can’t trust it.
But they are good people, that’s just how the game is played, a little wink, a little nod, a little nudge…
as they say here, you adjust.  You figure it out.
The right outfit is out there, waiting.
And if not, the tailor is right around the corner…

India, day 3

I’m at the kitchen table, surrounded by the detritus of a day beginning: my tea, thick with milk and sugar, my dadi’s combs and her shoes.  She’s taking a bath the old way, bucket of hot water and a “mug” — a pint sized plastic pitcher to pour the water over her body in the wet room that is home to both toilet and the mostly-unused cold water shower, as well as the hot water tap.
This is my India.
It’s really the only India I’ve known deeply.  Last time I was here, 17 years ago, I spent endless days in this exact apartment, the same one where my father grew up—one bedroom, a luxurious two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room, in a building that was probably new 20 years before my grandparents moved in.  The walls are sturdy, thick concrete.  You can’t hear the bedroom from the living room, even if you’re shouting.  The building is short, no lifts, so my 97 year old grandmother has been confined to just this tiny world when she’s in Mumbai for years now, since stairs became too difficult to navigate.  When my uncle comes he will carry her down the stairs and take her to his large and modern apartment in Pune, several hours away.  There’s more space, but less warmth there; she prefers the place where she has lived for 70 years.
My days here are mostly constrained by language: I don’t speak Hindi, the language of my family and one of the official languages of India, or Marathi, the local language.  India has 13 major languages, but of them only English and Hindi are on everything.  South Indians are so angry at having been slighted, Tamil left out, that they would rather speak English than learn Hindi.  North-south rivalries abound everywhere, but here they take on the flavor of thousands of years of mythology-reinforced prejudice.  In the north, paintings of demons in the temples look like people from the south: shorter, rounder, darker, with curly hair.  In some parts of the south they celebrate the figure known as the demon king elsewhere.  This is nothing if not a country of contradictions, paradoxes, and the inevitable, “you adjust.”
But the funny thing is that you .do. adjust.  What seems onerous in any other context feels at most like a mild irritation.  And if you pay attention when you get here, you find that we—they—have been solving these problems for years. Water only comes to each part of the city for a few hours a day.  Solution: everyone with a building has a cistern.  Everyone without a building has a big bucket or two.  In the mornings I wake to the sound of water on water, the tap in the courtyard going full force into a five gallon bucket as the man who lives in the hut there—his house made of corrugated roofing balanced where the courtyard walls meet, and enclosed with tarps and more roofing—stocks up on water and bathes, old school multitasking out of necessity—he is not the only one who comes to the tap for water and the hours are short.
Meanwhile, we have the luxury of waking slowly, my father, my dadi, and I.  Her overnight caregiver gets up first from her pallet on the floor by dadi’s bed, and begins the laundry and making lime water and the tea I will drink when I’m ready.
Hiring servants is a social obligation here; there are three who come through the day.  Anita, who does asleep overnight caregiving for dadi, Chara, who comes around 11 and cooks all the food for the day, and Geeta, who comes in the evening and sweeps, mops, does some dishes and cleans the bathrooms.  There’s no SSI here, no welfare, no dole.  If you don’t hire people, they will have to beg on the streets.  So everyone who possibly can—middle class and up—hires someone, or several someones.  The best people are paid well, relatively speaking, and are loyal and trustworthy.  As has ever been the case, if you’re going to trust someone in your house, that’s very important.  However, the relationship is clearly stratified.  Old rules still apply; servants rarely sit with their employers.  Some still adhere to the tradition that servants sit below the level of the people they work for.  And yet, there’s a lot of respect and sometimes affection.  Paradox.  Contradiction.  Adjust.
As a foreigner here, I adjust as hard as I can.  It’s my job.  I’m a guest.  I travel with the Prime Directive high on my list.  My father has a different perspective, being Indian at heart, even if his passport now says differently.  He sees things he wants to change and changes them.  But even he is circumspect in his choices.  There are things you can’t change, jenga pieces you can’t pull out without toppling the whole tower.  It’s a delicate balance between awareness of equality, justice, and human rights, and a culture that is thousands of years in the making.  Indians pivot fast when they have the incentive, but there has to be a good reason—and for everyone. It’s hard to change the culture when the benefit is primarily for the non-power-holders.
Humans are humans everywhere.  Supply and demand doesn’t change because you crossed a border.  And here, humans are still cheaper than machines.  Labor is easy to get, and the comforts that balance out the “adjustments” are often provided by other humans.  For every stressor here, there’s a luxury to balance it out, as long as you have some money.  But the luxuries are available across a much broader range of classes.  On the other hand, especially with the tech revolution, there is a huge gap between the increasingly wealthy and the abjectly poor.  Both are true.  Constructions workers live in temporary tents on the construction site while fifteen stories above their heads, million-dollar apartments survey the neighborhood from the sky.
after I published this, I got a sweet and thorough response on Facebook.  I said I would add it to my post, but then couldn’t find it on FB.  The gist was that there are other perspectives and other ways of understanding India; that my perspective is necessarily limited by my particular experience and location, and that the commenter, who has lived in northern India but is from a southern state, has a rich and nuanced sense of things that have looked much more binary from my perspective.  I will keep looking for the thread.

one-to-one cuddling, a primer

I made a post on Facebook, and then another one, about cuddling.  Someone asked if there was a list of guidelines.  This is the result.

So you’ve decided you want to try this platonic cuddling thing.

You know there’s an epidemic of skin hunger.

You might even be part of it.

Or you might just be ready for some kickass touch that’s not about sex.

But in a world that sees everything touch except hugs as sex, how do you do that? has some great resources for group cuddles, including trained facilitators (and facilitator trainings) and providing support for organizing cuddle parties once you’re trained. has professional cuddlers for hire.

But some of us are ready to venture into the slightly more wildlands and try platonic one-on-one cuddling with people we know.  (NB: I make no assumptions about your relationship structures here.)

How is that MORE wild than a room full of strangers or a professional?
There are no rules except the ones you make.
There are no supervisors, no lifeguards, no one to hold you to your expectations and agreements, no one to boost your negotiations, no one watching…except you.
And in a touch-starved world, oxytocin and vasopresin are powerful drugs.
Which makes the ability to get your cuddles in without it leading to sex even more important, because this way you can choose your sexual activities completely separately from your body’s need to be touched.

There are lots of ways to do it:
  • You can have a formal cuddle date, where you plan to get together and cuddle, just for the sake of the cuddle.
  • You can curl up on the couch together and watch a movie.  
  • You can lie down on pillows or a bed and just hold each other.
  • You can lean on each other while you talk.
  • You can spoon, you can hug face to face, you can sit nested and sing together or read together.
It can be about human connection, it can be about deep affection and love, it can be about comfort, it can be about fun.

But to keep it safe and sweet, and to help you not slide into the dominant cultural narrative that says that All Touch Is Eventually About Sex Anyway Obviously, you might need some support:

Advance communication.
Common expectations.
Some guidelines.

It helps to set expectations and boundaries ahead of time, and communicate clearly.  In fact, this can also be good practice for other situations, both sexual and nonsexual.

These are my suggestions.
Your mileage (kilometereage?) may vary.
Tweak at will.  This is the beginning of a conversation, it doesn’t have to be set in stone.
Think it through.

  1. This is for pleasure.  If we’re not both here to enjoy ourselves, what are we doing?
  2. We are both capable of consent. (There are places and times where this is not actually needed, like if your drunk friend wants to fall asleep on your shoulder.  But I’m talking here about intentional cuddling situations, where you’re setting up a cuddle date.)
  3. Consent may be altered or withdrawn at any time, no harm no foul.  It cannot be retroactively withdrawn.  (You can say, “I don’t want you to touch my shoulders anymore.” You can’t say, “I said before that I was okay with having my shoulders touched, but now I wish I hadn’t and it’s your fault that you touched them anyway.”)
  4. If you have people in your life with whom you need to negotiate so you can do this without breaking your agreements, do so in advance.
  5. This is not about or for sex. We are agreeing not to have sexual contact.  (Again this is for a true cuddle date.  Want to see if it goes further?  Change this rule, but whatever you decide, be explicit and tell them ahead of time.  You’re a sovereign being, AND they should get to decide if they want to play by the rules you want to play by.)
  6. Sexual starts with kissing.  No kissing, no fondling.  Caressing is fine, but not on parts of my body that I feel are sexual, and if something isn’t obvious I will let you know.
    1. If you get turned on because we’re holding each other, your turn-on is yours to manage in a gracious way.  That is, without asking the other person to be sexual with you or being sexual in their presence.  Concretely, for example: if you have a penis and it becomes erect, gently move so it’s not pressing into my body and make a request to change what we’re doing so it doesn’t get stimulated further.  Your erection is not my problem.  You are in collaboration to maintain your agreed-upon boundaries.
  7. There’s a difference between sensual and sexual.  Sensuality is delightful and important.  Most people don’t even think about this line.  It’s actually very important.
  8. Clothes stay on. (Unless you’re both super comfortable with being naked and nonsexual, or unless you negotiate something else.)
  9. Clothes are not revealing or sexy: think cute flannel, not lingerie.
  10. Touch is restricted to not-usually-considered-sexual parts of the body.  Off limits for me: breasts, nipples, genitals.  Your list may vary.  Your cuddle buddy’s list may vary.  Talk about it.
  11. Set a time limit if you want to make sure you have an easy exit strategy.  Set a timer.  Do what you need to to make it a container until you’re comfortable.
  12.  Don’t take “no” personally.  If you hear no, accept it graciously and go to things you both want to do.  If you are not good at taking no with grace, practice.  If you need help with practice, I can coach you.
  13. Keep talking.  Communicate clearly.  Take the risk to be vulnerable about what you want, what you don’t want, and how to find the win-win.  Only say yes when you mean yes.  Only say no when you mean no.  Remember you can change your mind.
  14. Enjoy yourselves.  See #1

Further advice: being cagey about what you want will not cut it.  Our cultural scripts leave too much room for error, and when you don’t say, then people guess. Based on the scripts.

If you want to include kissing as acceptable, say so. If you want to make sure the person you’re with knows your elbow is an erogenous zone and they should avoid it, say so.  Say it.  Just say it.  Start with, “I know this is kind of awkward but…” or “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea but…” or “I’m going to be explicit about something that most people aren’t but…”  Or take a page from Reid Mihalko and his Awkward Conversation Formula and say, “I’m afraid to tell you this, because I’m concerned that you’re going to (think/do/say)… but I feel like I need to tell you anyway.  I’m really hoping you’ll… after you hear me out.”  Talk about the insulin injector that you wear or the pacemaker or your back injury or how you love it when people tuck their heads on your shoulder.  Say it.

So how does this look in real life? What if you want to cuddle with someone you usually watch movies with anyway?  Use these as guidelines to have a conversation about it:

“Hey, I was wondering if you’d like to platonically cuddle while we watch Terminator 4 tonight?”

“Platonic cuddles, what’s that?”

“Well, we’d lie on a big pile of floor pillows with some blankets, with our clothes on, and hug and touch gently, but not trying to get turned on, just because touching another human is nice.  Like a really long hug.”

“What if we get turned on?”

“We just agree not to do anything with the turn on.”

“Not do anything?”

“Yeah, so like, if I get turned on I won’t start touching you sexually or kissing you or anything, I’ll just know I’m feeling that.”

“And what if I don’t want to do something you’re doing?”

“Then you just say so and I stop.  And if you want to do something we just talk about it.”

“OK that sounds kind of awesome. Weird, but awesome. Let me text my sweetie and see if we need to talk more before I do this.  We’ve never really talked about it but she’s really affectionate with her family and friends, and she likes you, so it’s probably fine….[typetype] She says it’s cool, but no hands under clothes.”

“Wasn’t planning that anyway, but it’s nice to have that clarity from her.  Awesome, let’s get the throw pillows.”

If you like this idea, and you want to see how people you know might respond, here’s the post I made on Facebook:

Okay folks, I would like to make this abundantly clear: I like to cuddle. That’s platonic, bodies touching, clothes on (off is a different conversation), makes you drowsy and floppy cuddle. If we are friends, and you would like to cuddle, please feel free to ask me for a cuddle date, or ask for cuddles when we are already hanging out (if you have partners who need to be negotiated with, please take care of that first).

I am committed to promoting platonic cuddles where they are wanted. I am tweaking my living room because more cuddles are good.

And if I don’t want to, I will tell you that. Obviously no means no. But I will not be mad at you for asking.

…and a particularly wise friend and experienced cuddler, Brian Buchbinder, commented:

Some might think of it as “just” cuddling, as if that were a limitation. Really, though, whether it’s cuddling or kissing, setting a clear boundary about what’s going on means you can play as all-in as possible. When there is a tension about intent, the power of the interaction is limited. Funny about how setting limits allows for unlimited participation and connection. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

I invite you to take the words from my Facebook post, tweak them, and make your own invitation.  See what you get.  🙂  The world changes by changing its parts, and we are its parts.

Happy cuddling!

groundhog resistant gardening

I’ve had a dilemma for several years now.

I love growing food.  I love the magic of start-with-nothing, end-with-nourishment.  I love growing green things, I love having my hands and feet in the dirt.  I do not wear gardening gloves, and I don’t at all mind having grit on my fingers.

There are two catches:

  1. I’m shit at keeping up with it.  As an intensive one of the things I do is work in fits and starts.  All enthusiasm for a week, and then forget for a month.  I need a timer if there’s going to be watering, because I will not remember.  I won’t weed unless I feel like it.  This could mean that the garden is on its own for a long time.  Some seasons I’ve dallied and fondled the plants a lot.  It all depends
  2. The groundhog.  The one who moved in halfway through my first season in this house, putting his secondary doorway right above my newly turned garden plot.

The solution to (1) is routine, love, not traveling much, and hardy plants.

The solution to (2), I’m told, is a .22, only I don’t have the heart.  Or the gun.  (The other solution is to surround the garden entirely, even underground, with fencing.  Dig down a foot, lay a cattle panel, wire a fence to the cattle panel, and then make sure your fence is four feet tall.)

So for three years I’ve let the garden lie fallow.  It was too disheartening to see my pea shoots nipped off at the base, basil chewed to the ground, squash half eaten and left to rot.  In that time the raspberries have started to take over (if anyone knows what to do about them, please let me know) and only the little circle of herbs at the center of the plot has really persisted.  There, the more fragile herbs died back this winter, unprotected by snow, but the chives are taking over and the lemon oregano is determinedly carrying on.

I want to replace the lavender, the sage, and the rosemary.  I’d like to add dill and coriander.  The groundhog seems to prefer lighter flavors.

But my real love is the idea that everything we tend, every bit of yard or garden, could be useful.  The Washington Post recently ran this article on historic gardening which I devoured, but even better, imagine if nearly all the pretty things also healed, or tasted good, or…had some use.

As it turns out, the pretty, sustainable, yummy things also do not require fencing for protection from the wild.

In fact, my yard is already planted with some, which the groundhog completely ignores.

So in service of the can’t-we-all-just-get-along gardeners in our midst, I’m going to start a list of groundhog resistant plants, meaning that MY groundhog has not seen fit to eat them in four years.

  1. Hostas.  Edible greens, young or old.  Groundhog seems indifferent.  So are the skunks, raccoons, and whoever else is visiting my bird feeder.  Here’s the article:
  2. Day lilies.  NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH REGULAR FLORIST EASTER-and-FUNERAL lilies, which will kill you.  Day lilies offer flower buds, flowers, and tubers.  Good for food, or the flowers are good as a thickener.  Flowers can also be stuffed and/or battered. Article here:
  3. chives
  4. oregano
  5. if you plant raspberries once they will take over your LIFE.  You have been warned.  I am trying to figure out how to kill some of them off, and I am not usually one to kill things.

I will update as I go.

Eating, a pleasure.

Growing your own food, magic.

Not having to go to the grocery store, priceless.

practical drapes

…every few months the obsession with draped clothing surfaces.  This time it was because I was thinking that choli blouses just don’t make sense. In what universe do you take a super simple garment (six yards of unstitched fabric at the width of the loom) and make it complicated by adding a stitched skirt and skintight, highly-customized, highly-tailored blouse?

  • Victorian England, although there’s some evidence that choli blouses predate the British occupation in some areas.
  • a culture that loves high, rounded breasts as an ideal of a woman’s figure (yep, like the Greek statues, most Indian statuary was not representative but idealized) and discovers that you can get much closer if you put a fitted upper garment on the woman in question
  • a culture where the original way to address the awkwardness of having breasts was a breast…tie?  strip?  Just a piece of cloth tied around the chest.  Then when sewing becomes a thing, you make it fit better and stay on longer.  Fair.
  • a culture where the weather is cold. (Some of India, but definitely not all)

However, all these things assume you have some time and energy to devote to the project.  None of the farmers I saw in India (ever) looked like they had spare time or energy.  Like farmers here, and probably everywhere, if it’s growing season, they’re busy, and since there isn’t a real winter there, it’s almost always growing season.

One day, riding the train between cities in India in 2000, I looked out the window and my jaw dropped.  In the middle of a country that I was experiencing as very concerned with modesty, there was an elder woman, maybe in her 50’s or 70’s (age works differently when you work outdoors all day) working in a rice field…with no choli blouse.  Her pallu (the long tail end of a sari, usually more decorated, that sometimes hangs down the back of the person wearing the sari) was scrunched up on her shoulder and wrapped around her waist to tuck in front, one breast covered, the other not.

It started wheels spinning that are still turning.

What if, especially in the south, this business of blouses was relatively new?  (Likely.)

As I continued to think about draped clothing (it’s been 16 years) and learn about saris, I discovered that there aren’t just a couple of variations, there are hundreds (that we know of, probably many are already lost) of ways to drape a sari.  And some of them cover the chest with that same six or nine yards of fabric.  It should be possible.  Six is a lot of yards.  I can make a dress with four or five.  I can make a minidress with fewer.  So with six yards, someone must have figured out the wrap-fold-pleat secret to not needing anything else.  Imagine if, handed a beautiful length of fabric, you could just .put it on and leave the house.

That’s what saris do.

Except that whole blouse thing.

So today, with a little more energy and some curiousity, I went digging on the internet.

“How to wear a sari without a choli” I typed.

Some useful things and a lot of erotic photography turned up.

no no no, not how to be half-dressed while wearing a sari and no choli.  

I tried a few more search strings, but somewhere in there this photo caught my eye:

As it turns out, it’s from a film in Malayalam due to be released in 2016 (I think) about a tribal village woman who fights to honor the balance with nature.  Sounds awesome.

Also, check out that picture.  And look at the drape.

She’s not rail-thin.  She looks like she could get something done in her sari.  And she is wearing, as far as I can tell, neither petticoat nor choli.

There are practical ways to wear saris.  The current dominant way is one of the least practical.  No wonder younger women are struggling to keep the sari alive.  

The nivi drape, which you’ve seen everywhere, is not made for getting things done.  Who leaves their pallu untucked?  Someone who doesn’t need to lift a finger.  Everyone else wraps it around their waist and tucks it in on the opposite side so they don’t come undressed.  When you start to dig around in the history and complexity of sari drapes, one thing becomes immediately clear: women have been doing amazing things in saris for thousands of years, and almost none of them wore their saris like THAT.

Maharastrian women wear a nine-yard, bifurcated drape.  The bottom of the sari looks like pants.  Know why?  BECAUSE THEY RODE HORSES INTO BATTLE.  Badass.  Practical.  (That’s the drape I borrowed for my installation sari at my last church.  Because badass and practical and proud of my Indian heritage were important to me.)

When I was in India in 2000, I watched women wearing this drape scramble up and down hand-tied bamboo scaffolding with pots of wet cement on their heads.  It is SUPREMELY practical.  Also, the pallu can be made into a pad for whatever you balance on your head.

The fishtail drape (the one you see on Bharatnatyam dancers) is another bifurcated drape, because if you want to tell a detailed story using only your body, you’d better be able to move your legs!  Also, they’re gorgeous.  Why reserve it for dancing?

The kache drape takes the same basic steps that you use for the nivi drape and turns THAT into pants.  Because it’s easy, and practical, and if you need to pee it’s not too much work.

And the deeper I dig the more often I find overlap between dhotis (men’s draped pants, usually 5 yards) and saris.

And there are some kickass dhoti drapes.

When I order a new sari, it sits and waits for a long time, because I need to find a way to make a blouse for it.  I live in Maine; we don’t have choli tailors on every corner.

But what if I could just put it on and go?

What drape can I go rock climbing in?

When women didn’t wear tops, what did their saris look like?  Maybe I can just add a shirt.

There are potential problems here.  With so many groups in India, is it appropriative for me to wear a drape not native to my region?  How about if it is from a tribal or scheduled caste group?  What about the fact that I live in the US?

On the other hand, I want these traditions to live.  Chantal Boulanger was a French anthropologist who did tremendous work in preserving some of the drapes which were being lost as elder women died and the local drapes fell out of favor.  If she had not learned to wear the saris and sought out the people who would show her the drapes, valuable history might have been lost.  She collected her work in a book before she died in a freak accident in 2004.  Now there is a school in New Delhi, run by an Indian woman, teaching other Indian women to drape saris, because it’s vulnerable.  Women’s oral history is easily erased completely.  There is also a stunning coffee table book  written by Kalpana Shah, with instructions and color photographs.  And then there is the #100sareepact from Twitter which started as a pledge between two friends in Bengaluru to wear saris more often, and Dare2Drape, which is encouraging not just traditional but modern drapes.

The only way to keep the tradition alive is to claim it.  It has never gone away, but it gets pushed aside for clothes that are less eye-catching and to which we are better accustomed.  But this is my tradition.  And it’s going to be my rock-climbing, cat-petting, beach-walking tradition, so I’d better figure out how to make it my own.

I’ve got class, education, language, and cultural privilege here in North America.  I plan to use it.

your body knows. Listen.