I read the book Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed once. She is one of my favorite authors. By the end of that book in particular, I began to love her even more because she was just so brutally honest with her readers. A piece of advice she gives is, “Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.” I had always struggled with this line, but yet was still so deeply intrigued by it. I did not want to be gutted – because, quite frankly, it sounds gross and I figured it meant that I would probably have to be vulnerable or cry or face some heartache or something that would be a bummer. And I kind of hate when things are a bummer. However, I was still toying with the idea of maybe being gutted some day. I wanted my life to be opened.
I never would have predicted that a shelter filled with amazing women in Calcutta, India would be doing me that honor. It is official. I have been gutted.
I arrived at this specific shelter yesterday and was immediately greeted by a young woman. She smiled at me, touched my hand, and said “Auntie.” I visit my nieces and nephews quite frequently back home and if you know me, I intensely identify with the word “Auntie.” I later learned that in the Indian culture, “Auntie,” or “Didi,” can literally mean an aunt, or more specifically within shelter homes, a respected and admired woman. The exchange I had with this young woman warmed my heart and just that moment alone would have been memorable enough for me that day.
There were about fifteen Indian women that my sister and I met. We were shown the machines and tools they operate with and the beautiful jewelry they had created. Soon after the introductions, my sister lead a discussion group with the women and her words were translated from English to Bengali. It went from lighthearted to serious, serious to lighthearted. From poking fun at one another, to tears, to laughter, a loving eye roll here and there. We took a break and the women made us tea. There is something about women and tea, I tell you. Some of the best conversations I have ever been a part of, took place over tea with some badass, lovely women.
When I began to look at the women around the room, I realized they were not all that younger or older than I was. Their ages ranged from eighteen to thirty. I thought about their background and their truths. Some were mothers. Some were wives or wives-to-be. I am not a mother. I am not a wife, nor am I even remotely close to a wife-to-be. To my surprise, the women loved these facts about me. Here I am thinking about being back home in The United States, surrounded by people in real life as well as social media who live for the left handed, purposefully manicured, “I said yes!” pose; Who bask in the sand dune or oak tree “Save the Date” pose; Who love a good ole gender reveal party with a blue balloon bursting out of a top hat (I have actually never seen the top hat gender reveal moment, but someone should look into this); and these women were here praising me for the mere fact that I was an unmarried young woman, without child, living on her own in the city.
They wanted details. “So, do you have a boyfriend?” “What do you like about him?” “How did you meet him?” I told them quite simply that I went on a lot of dates with a lot of men over the years. I explained to them that I was picky and said no to many second and third dates with men. They absolutely squealed with laughter at the thought of a woman telling a man that they were not interested in continuing dating him. Through this, the point I made to them was that by saying no to the bad, or the sub-par, or the “just friends,” I was able to say yes when it counted and that there was power in being selective and patient. Although this was well-received and appreciated by the women, my experience with men is just not a reality for them. The women told me that within Indian culture, marriage is a focal point. Arranged marriage is still quite common and marrying at a young age is the norm. If you are not married, or if you are uninterested in marriage, you are not accepted and it is typical to be shamed. Taking your time and being mindful of who you marry is a rarity here in India, specifically for women.
During this conversation, I could not help but be reminded of the many times I have been with my girlfriends from home, covering stories about boyfriends and marriage. I have had my share of coffee dates and wine nights discussing hope and love and heartache and loss. For a fleeting moment, I felt like that is what this little tea time was at the shelter, a simple bonding moment between women. On the one hand, it was. But, on the other, a reality exists.
Some of the women I was speaking with had been trafficked, but rescued. Others were daughters of women that were trafficked and in result are now at risk of being trafficked themselves someday. They cannot post their pictures on social media, they cannot share their age or where they work. They cannot take calls from unknown numbers and on a daily basis are at risk of being trafficked. I had just felt so connected and equal to these women, but the truth washed over me and the realization of just how different our realities were left me in tears.
The day was coming to a close when one of the women said to me, “If I can give you any advice, it is for you to marry a man who is in love with you. You can learn to love him. If you marry a man that you love and he does not love you the same way, you will spend the rest of your days heartbroken.” It was her own broken heart that she was speaking from and every woman nodded their head in agreement. The energy in the room was filled with their own experiences of betrayal and heartache caused by men – fathers, husbands, boyfriends. She held eye contact with me, tears in her eyes, tears pouring from mine.
As I walked through the doors to leave the shelter, I looked back over my shoulder. There she was looking back at me. We locked eyes, shared a smile and a nod. And without a word, she said to me, “Let it open you. Start here.”