Glimpses of Myself and the World Beyond

Every day on campus, there are several events about cultures, arts and ideas I may have never heard of. Cornell brings together talented researchers, performers and artists of diverse interests, backgrounds and nationalities.This is a place where I only have to walk for a few minutes to get a glimpse of anything in the world beyond.

On Friday evening, I watched a documentary called “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” at the Cornell Cinema. I had first read of El Camino de Santiago in a textbook for my Spanish class. It’s an ancient, Christian pilgrimage which now attracts modern pilgrims of all faiths, nationalities and purposes. One of my housemates who I watched the documentary with had studied abroad in Spain last year and walked a part of the Camino. I hadn’t imagined that many people even knew about the Camino, never mind that I might be living with someone who has walked it.

The documentary followed the journeys of six strangers along the Camino. Some were doing it for religious reasons, some for spiritual ones, some as a form of healing, and a few who had no idea why. What stood out to me was that along the way, everyone’s backpack seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps we don’t need all the things we think we need. I also realized that the Cornell Cinema plays an excellent,diverse selection of films and documentaries throughout the semester and that I should probably be watching more than one film per semester there.

While making plans for Saturday night, a friend mentioned that SPICMACAY Cornell was sponsoring a concert by the Mysore Brothers, classical Indian violinists. Although I was initially uninterested, I decided to go because a friend convinced me to. The music was brilliant and we stayed for the entire duration of the concert – about two and a half hours. I left with the feeling that I should learn enough about music, art and dance to be able to truly appreciate it.

What was funny about the night was that I was being introduced to my own cultural heritage as far away from home as possible. Being a South Indian, I should have probably been more aware of Carnatic music while growing up. But at home,neither I nor my friends would have attended a classical music concert. I had to be half way across the world to be able to appreciate its beauty.

At the end of last semester, a graduate student from India had asked me how my identity as an Indian had evolved since I had come to Cornell. I didn’t have an answer then. Last night, I realized that I’ve only been aware of my identity as an Indian since I came to Cornell. In the homogeneity of Delhi, where everyone around me shared the a common culture and upbringing, I never had to think about it. Here I’m forced to think about my differences, to acknowledge and embrace them.

I left the concert feeling more consciously connected to India than I ever have before. At Cornell, I see not only glimpses of the world beyond but also glimpses of myself and where I come from. As a Cornell student, I probably have access to the best professors and resources in the world but I think the most valuable part of my education comes from these experiences and reflections I’d have never had in the familiarity and homogeneity of home.

Relearning to Breathe @ “Intro to Meditation”

When I first wanted to establish a meditation practice, I thought a Cornell PE class would be a great way to learn. Last semester, Introduction to Meditation did not fit my schedule, so I took the “Meditation and Relaxation”.The class met once a week, on Tuesday evenings, for about two hours. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t see why it was a bad idea. Every prelim for my CS and Math classes was on a Tuesday. And getting to Teagle Hall took a long, twenty minute walk through wintry Cornell. After three weeks, I stopped going to the class.

Although I received a grade of “Unsatisfactory” on “Meditation and Relaxation”, I still did want to establish a meditation practice. So when Intro to Meditation fit in my schedule this semester, I added it. The class meets for 50 minutes, twice a week. It has only been one week so far, but I know that this is the right class for what I want to learn.

On the first day of class, we talked about what meditation meant to each of us, individually. My response in class was somewhat incoherent. I often find myself being anxious about little things I have no control over. Mostly, these thoughts are repetitive. Maybe I have to print something for my Spanish class but my printer is malfunctioning; I decide to go to the library early next morning and print it before class. But it doesn’t end there, I’m not even fully aware of how many times the thought of printing my homework crosses my mind after that. Supposedly, on an average, a person has 60,000 thoughts per day and over 90% of them are exactly the same. (I haven’t found the study which proves this, but it sounds believable to me.) I want to have power over the way I think and feel and that is my motivation to meditate.

Then we read a list of twenty quotes on meditation. Each person chose what resonated most with themselves and meditated on it for ten minutes. There were some fantastic quotes on that sheet, but I chose something simple which gave me an action to do – focus on my breath – while meditating.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.  - Thích Nhất Hạnh

I had my second class today. After a few yoga poses, we tried two introductory meditation techniques which focused on breathing. I like what was called “counting meditation”. You focus on and count each complete breath you take, but as soon as your thoughts stray, you must start from zero again. If I am honest with myself, even ten is a difficult target right now. It’s also funny that my stray thoughts are about how I’ll brag when I’ll be better at meditation.

At the end of the class, everyone received a personal journal to write in. My journal entry prompted me to write this blog post. The reflections in my journal seem to be the most enjoyable part of this class for me. It’ll be interesting to read it at the end of the semester.

Notes -
Introduction to Meditation is offered by Cornell PE.
And there is also a free, mindfulness meditation series on campus on weekdays.
I loved Robin Sharma’s –  ”The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”.

On A Tapestry of Possibilities

Last year, I had watched Tapestry as a freshman. It was a mandatory theater show on social justice and I was ambivalent about it. From my first week on campus, I had not gathered much about the differences in the Cornell community and being new to the country made it worse. Although I was missing the social and cultural context of the skits, the universal elements of the show made it relatable.

At the end of the show, I remember being clearly impressed with it. I went to up to one of the cast members and told her that although I didn’t have any acting experience, I would like to be a part of the troupe – Ordinary People. As the semester progressed, Tapestry had faded into oblivion. When Ordinary People announced the auditions, I had gained some confidence as an actor, owing to the Introduction to Acting class. So I auditioned and was pleasantly surprised to receive the “Welcome to OP!” email.

Ordinary People grew to be a significant part of my freshman experience. I looked forward to our Friday meetings where we didn’t just play theater games, but also found the time to vent about college and have fun. But given the sensitivity of the topics we were working with, there were differences in the way we approach them, considering that troupe members have varied backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, we work through our differences (which make OP what it is), to staging effective shows.

This fall, I came back early to campus to rehearse and perform Tapestry. Rehearsals were exhausting eight to twelve hour ordeals, but the end product was worth all of our efforts. At first, a production of this magnitude seemed daunting – especially because this would be my first official work as an actor.

Kiplinger Theatre - where magic (and tapestry) happens.

Kiplinger Theatre – where magic (and tapestry) happens.

Over our five days of intense rehearsals, I came to embrace the stage. From being someone who only liked to dance in the privacy of her room, I went to being someone who was learning to do the hip roll on stage. During our 11 performances of Tapestry, I was elated each time we had a full house. The energy of the audience makes the stage all the more inviting.

Our audiences seemed to enjoy the show but were less enthusiastic about the discussion that followed. The facilitated discussion has always been the highlight of OP shows for me. The audience is mostly passive in traditional theater, so I believe it’s in these discussions that we really think about the questions raised in the skits.

The conversation is even more productive when two people have differing opinions. There are few platforms for two conflicting parties to just sit and talk about their differences. In OP, we acknowledge that an engaged conversation may not  ease deep discomforts between two groups. Instead, we seek a connection between the two groups which may have gone unnoticed.

For instance, when I watched Tapestry as a freshman, I remember that affirmative action was a contentious topic during the discussion. On one hand there are minority communities who believe that affirmative action only compensates for the societal/institutional/economic disadvantages they must cope with; on the other are students from majority communities who think it’s unfair that a peer with comparable qualifications may get access to a resource that perceived to be better. OP facilitators began the conversation by connecting the two conflicting groups on their value for fairness and equality. They wanted to explore the meaning of fairness in an absolute  sense and use that to connect conflicting individual definitions. This conversation wasn’t meant to remove the differences, but to understand them from a wider perspective.

The cast of Tapestry 2014.

The cast of Tapestry 2014. (much love <3)

This approach to conflict resolution inspired me and I signed up to moderate a Tapestry discussion this year. Having 300 people in the audience and only 30 minutes of discussion time makes it hard to have a conversation as engaged as we would have liked. But the experience of moderating Tapestry seemed surreal to me. A year ago, I had been a clueless freshman in the audience. The year leading to Tapestry was a journey of immense growth and discovery for me, and that realization happened on the Tapestry stage.

As enjoyable and a great learning experience as Tapestry was, I was relieved when it was over. Twelve hour rehearsals, classes during the day and three performances each night was an exhausting schedule to be on. Working for intense periods with the same group of people also led to personal tensions, even for a group of students who were so aware of conflicts and  their resolution. But we survived it all and produced a brilliant show (Seriously, it was fabulous).

If you watched Tapestry and wanted to be on that stage, or if you just like Ordinary People’s work – show up for auditions later this month. For details, get in touch with troupe members or find us at clubfest or look out for posters and quarter cards. Or if you just liked the moderated discussions and want more of it, on 9th September (Tuesday), OP will be conducting a post Tapestry discussion at the Cornell Cinema at 7:00P.M.

Note: Views expressed in this blog post are personal. Ordinary People and Tapestry are not affiliated to this.

Strangely, I Miss Cornell’s Library This Summer

Two months ago, I would have given anything to go as far away from Cornell’s libraries as possible. The library is the best representative of the work stress that Cornell students face every semester. But now that I really am as far away from Cornell as possible (on Earth), I realize that it is easy to take Cornell libraries for granted when there’s one within every two hundred meters. I have yet to come across a book (in English) that is not available at the Cornell. In the past year, I have found everything from obscure academic texts, recent New York Times best sellers to historical records of Tamil Nadu, an Indian state. In fact, I even found a first edition copy of a play I’m in love with, in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

However, that’s hardly surprising considering that in February, Cornell Library announced the arrival of its 8 millionth physical volume. Every time I try to imagine eight million books spatially, I am stumped. So I try to think about it one library rack at a time, in Olin Library.

That's one row of bookshelves.

That’s one row of bookshelves.

And that many rows per floor.

And that many rows per floor. (Now you know what a horizontal abyss looks like.)

 

That many floors + 3 underground floors of book stacks at Olin Library

That was the largest of nearly 20 library divisions/buildings at Cornell.

Although there are usually a couple copies of the same book (different editions perhaps), sometimes they may all be checked out. In that case, I use the BorrowDirect service which allows library users to request books from other Ivy League universities’ and MIT’s libraries.

As I’m back in Delhi for the summer, Cornell’s library system is one of the things I really miss. Now if I come across an interesting book, I can’t just search for it on the online catalog, find its call number and get the book from the stacks. Not just books, I could also find historical maps,  audio and video collections and research papers with ease at Cornell. If I couldn’t find it myself, the librarians were always incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.

So if you happen to visit Cornell, be sure to checkout the libraries. It’s paradise for those who seek books, information, a place to nap or simply a selfie at the “Harry Potter” library.

Andrew Dickson White Library at Uris Library, or simple “Harry Potter” library.

Visit the Cornell University Library website to explore the full catalog and services offered by the library.