Dorm rooms and hallways were filled with speculation about Mountain Day as September drew to a close. Would tomorrow be the morning we woke to hear the chapel bells chiming, signaling our day of recreation?
According to Mount Holyoke College legend*, Mountain Day was started by a few students who woke one morning to an absolutely dazzling day. They just simply couldn’t bear to attend classes when the sunshine was so spectacular and weather so pleasant. They skipped school that day to hike to the top of Skinner Mountain, basking in the glory of nature. The following year they did it again, and this time they were joined by more students. The tradition continued until the college was forced to recognize it as a holiday because the classrooms were nearly empty. So Mountain day was born, the day when classes are cancelled, exams re-scheduled, and the campus virtually shuts down until sunset.
Every year, we watched the weather reports, knowing the college president wouldn’t dare to pick an overcast or rainy day. And it had to be before the start of hunting season because it just wouldn’t be safe to send a legion of young women into the wilds of Skinner State Park during hunting season. We debated about how much work we should do for the next day, bargained how late we could go to bed, and eagerly made plans for our day of freedom. Rising early to hike or catching up on much-needed sleep, paper bag lunch from the kitchen or ladies’ day in Northampton, shelving textbooks or getting (further) ahead on assignments. Whatever students decided, one thing was always included in the day’s plans- cider and donuts at Atkins Farm.
There always came a point when Mountain Day dominated dining hall conversation. Finally, when it seemed that maybe the college president wouldn’t actually announce Mountain Day that year, the chapel bells would chime.
Dedicated to all my MoHo sisters. Happy Mountain Day!
I still cringe when people describe me as a housewife. I suppose managing the house is one thing I do, but I hesitate to list “housewife” as my occupation. I entered India on a tourist visa with the intention of adjusting my status to Person of Indian Origin (PIO) through my marriage. Long story short, it didn’t happen. We ended up completing the paperwork on our visit to the US in June, but the PIO card did not arrive in time for me to bring it back to India. So for the last year I haven’t earned a salary, maintained a bank account, or basically been recognized on any financial or legal documents. In these ways I’ve been a very typical “housewife”.
This change in status is something that has haunted me. At first I felt I was living in an existential vacuum and grasped frantically at threads of identity. I busied myself with unpacking boxes and arranging the life we transported across the oceans. I was dismayed when I realized that my attempt to resuscitate my previous life was unsuccessful.
I found myself at ladies’ luncheons and coffee mornings, often feeling awkward and out of place. I had to ask Sam for money when my wallet emptied. I watched with discomfort as the maid who came daily washed my dishes and scrubbed the floors. For many months I felt guilty about all my free time and leisure; I denied myself any activities that might be pleasurable.
I wish I could say there is a neat and tiny resolution to this inner dialogue, but there isn’t one. I began volunteering at a local orphanage and found fulfillment in being with the children there. I also met some terrific women who have been really kind and supportive friends. I found some peace in meditation. I often walk along the sea face, watching the tide roll in and out along the rocky shore. I imagine in those moments that each step brings me closer to understanding and accepting myself, no matter my job description.
We are nearing the end of Islam’s sacred month of Ramadan, a time devoted to fasting and purification of the body and soul. The Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammed through the archangel Gabriel in the sixth century during a period of lawlessness and social chaos. The Five Pillars of Islam are the foundation of Muslim life. The testimony of faith professes that there is only one God (Allah) and Mohammed was his messenger. Muslims pray facing the holy city of Mecca five times a day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night. Islam teaches that material possessions are purified through sharing with the needy; therefore, charity is an essential practice of Islam. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is a means of purifying the body and soul. Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset, but also abstain from sexual relations, gossip, and slander. Able Muslims are required to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lives.
(Warning: this post is a little graphic).
My heart actually stopped beating when I saw the fluffy grey tail dangling from my cat’s mouth. Just a second ago, I heard the squeaking of a squirrel that sounded a little too close to home. I ran to investigate and saw Ladybug with the squirrel clenched firmly in her teeth. Sam and I tried to corner her and coerce her to drop the poor thing but she was too deep into her animal nature to be persuaded. She finally dashed into the bathroom and I slammed the door behind her. (I thought it might be easier to clean than the living room rug.) My pulse was racing as Sam and I quickly debated what to do. I followed Ladybug, armed with a plastic bag and a bucket to collect the body of the tiny little squirrel. I must have startled Ladybug because she dropped the squirrel who (still alive) managed to hobble to safety. I picked up Ladybug and handed her over to Sam so I could scoop up the squirrel and release it outside. The little guy was shaking and I could see his heart beating through his chest when I returned him to the balcony floor. It took him a few hours to recover from the shock but he finally got the strength to find another home.
Learning how to prepare cuisine from different regions is one of the pleasures of living in India. Although my attempts do not taste very authentic I still enjoy experimenting and Sam enjoys eating. I arrive early for family meals, hoping to improve my cooking skills through observation.
Last night we had dinner with Sam’s grandmother, Dadi, who was eager to teach me how to prepare a few items. One of the staples of the Indian diet is rotis, or round flat breads, which are made from wheat flour. Sam’s family often makes rotlas from rice or millet flour for me because I don’t eat wheat. Dadi asked her cook, Mani, to prepare the rotlas in my presence last night.
Conceptually, rotlas are not difficult to make. By slowly adding water to the millet flour you knead the mixture until the dough is soft and pliable. Then you take a small handful of dough and shape it into a ball, again kneading it a little. Finally, with your hands you flatten the ball into a pancake shape and cook it on a very hot pan. When the bread is mostly cooked, remove it from the pan with tongs and hold it over the stovetop flame until it puffs. Done.
In theory this is easy enough, but I just can’t manage to get it right. I watch Mani with complete admiration as she expertly mixes and kneads the flour in the bowl. Her hands move with the assurance only an experienced cook possesses. Her body is relaxed, face smiling as she explains what she’s doing. This is a sharp contrast to my own experience: temperature rising, mind filled with self-doubt, hands frantically trying to correct the proportion of water to flour.
Mani’s hands are strong and sure, and she commands the dough with authority. Pushing down with her palm and bending it back with her fingers, the dough obeys her every command. She shapes a ball and begins to flatten it on a round marble slab dusted with flour. Tap, tap, tap, turn. Tap, tap, tap, turn. The rotla takes shape; it’s a perfect circle with even thickness and nice plump edges that stay firm. (Mine often crumble).
Mani’s hands craft one rotla after another, in an inviting rhythm that hints at years of shaping raw ingredients into simple feasts. She wipes her hands on a cloth after placing the last rotla on a plate. Then Mani picks up a knife and a cutting board. She smiles and asks if I’m ready to make the vegetables.