Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Do Not Kill Your Baby

During my twenty months working with small children at the Montessori school, I complained extensively and comprehensively. It was the perfect form of birth control. Once a month, I sent emails to myself. “Never ever have children,” they read. “Whatever you do, no kids for you.”

I finally escaped in August so that I could deal with all my shit at Vipassana, and then fly away to Mysore, India. There I would bond with my favourite cult and hopefully discover my life’s higher purpose. By the time I got to India, I missed kids. On the airplane, I felt envious of the mothers and fathers comforting their babies. In chanting, when all the kids are running around screaming, I wish I had a baby to hold, something else to do besides chant about sun gods, peace and elephants.

“Awe, look at this one,” I say to my Cool Friend From Belgium as we pass another toddler on the streets of Gokulam.

“Oh God, Erica,” says my Cool Friend From Belgium (CFFB). “Soon your boobs are going to start leaking milk.”

I’m happy my Cool Friend From Belgium mentioned this, because now I have the opportunity to tell everyone about me and the Boatman’s potential business project called Recreational Lactation (RL). Recreational Lactation means sucking on someone’s boobs for so long that they start making milk. Somewhere the Boatman heard that maybe this is possible. Since breast milk is apparently this magical and nourishing liquid, we thought that we could use my recreationally generated breast milk to make powerful and nutritious smoothies, ice cream and yogurt.  During my early days in Halifax, I had all the time in the world to make this plan materialize. Unfortunately, the Boatman had a pretty time consuming job and so he couldn’t fulfill his sucking responsibilities. My tits remained tiny and dry. Likely they will remain this way for some time as I endure this extended self-imposed dry spell. Regardless, I figured that somewhere in India, there were kids I could hang out with.

A couple weeks ago while wandering around my neighbourhood, I came upon a stone wall with this sign on it.

“Do not kill your baby,” it read. “Leave it here.”
Do Not Kill Your Baby

On one side of the sign was a picture of Krishna. The other side had a picture of Jesus. I walked in, passing a couple of young girls hanging laundry. At the front door, a woman was combing through the hair of a young girl with Down Syndrome. It looked like she was checking her scalp for lice. Inside, a very tiny child with what was probably cerebral palsy lay on a mat on the floor. Her eyes squinting and face disturbed, she bent her legs and straightened them repeatedly while clutching her fists in front of her chest. Two children, maybe ten or eleven were strapped into wooden high chairs. Their faces reminded of Isabelle, the woman I lived and worked with at L’Arche, and Glendon, the young boy my parents and I looked after when I was a teenager. So often kids with cerebral palsy have similar expressions and mannerisms, the same great big joy in their faces. I wondered how much money it would take to put wheels on these kids’ chairs. Or to get them a proper wheelchair.

After a few minutes, mobs of tiny children started wandering through the lobby and into a dark play room. None of them seemed to be wearing diapers, though they looked like they between one and three years old. A sturdier little boy in a red shirt stopped to say hello to me. He gave me a big grin and then started to smack me, laughing at each wack. I had a kid hit me repeatedly at the Montessori School.  At the time, it felt humiliating and insulting to be rejected by a three year old. In this case, however, I felt like I was getting special treatment. Even so, I waved my hands in front of me and shook my head.

“Ah,” I said, since I couldn’t speak one word of Kannada.

The kids kept pouring into the dark dingy playroom. I didn’t see very many adults around, but the house mother finally noticed me. She told me to email the manager and come back later. It took about five days to get a meeting with the manager. She arrived twenty minutes late which is pretty good for India.

“So the police have cleared you to take care of children.”

“Yes. In Canada.”

“That’s good. Some horrible things went down in Canada.”

She was talking about the segregation schools for First Nations people. I guess she herself was First Nations, but in Maine, where she came from, land rights and cultural respect were way better. Although I imagine she realized that I was too young to be directly implicated in the segregation schools, I never asked.

“Well, I think it would be great if you did some exciting Montessori things with our pre-schoolers.” Most of the other kids went to school, including the kids with disabilities. A couple of elders came from the sister nursing home to watch the toddlers, and sometimes some older girls helped out. Otherwise, there wasn’t much programming.

“You’ll be able to model for the older girls how to deal with toddlers without hitting them,” said the manager. 

What a wonderful idea, I thought. I told her I could come Tuesdays and Thursdays from ten until noon.

The first Tuesday, I arrived, the playroom was full. The only adult in sight was a very old lady who paced in and out of the playroom carrying a wooden stick. Probably there were 12 to 15 toddlers, interspersed with a handful of slightly older girls who could have been nine, but looked 5 or 6. Whenever a younger child cried, the bigger girls picked them up and swung them around. They continued to do this after the little ones stopped crying, yanking them on and off the floor and pulling them by their arms. Often this resulted in more tears. When I walked in the room, everyone swarmed me. They wanted to be picked up and sit on my lap. At Montessori, I was not the most cuddly or nurturing of teachers, certainly not at the beginning. I feel like French teachers are some of the more miserable people on earth. I have a saying that goes, All French Teachers Cry in the Bathroom. At the Montessori school I cried in the bathroom. When the kids cried, I wanted to cry too. I would have preferred to do anything else than deal with their tears. Eventually I learned that not dealing with tears would causes long term damage and thus I made a point of somewhat skillfully comforting children when they cried, even when I was grumpy.

At the orphanage, it was a no-brainer since now I have baby cravings and I’ve gone all soft. Plus these poor kids didn’t have parents. So I picked up any kid who wanted to be picked up. Everyone was allowed to sit on my lap. Nobody was wearing very substantial diapers and it didn’t seem likely that very many of them were potty trained. I decided that it was okay if I got peed on, but if someone shit on me, I could go home. Beforehand, I had rubbed tea tree and neem oil onto my hair to prevent lice. Within seven minutes, I realized that this was a lost cause. If anyone had lice, I was getting it.

“Aunty! Aunty!” some of the older kids exclaimed, waving at the ceiling. “Aunty! Camera! Aunty! Camera!” Apparently the house mother or someone was watching over the children from the office. How nice. One of the five or six year old girls in a frilly purple dress grabbed my hands. She had fierce fiery eyes. I could tell that expecting her to have any impulse control was unrealistic. She started crawling up my legs. Then she wrapped her hands around my neck. She was a little old to get picked up, but again, no parents. I decided it was okay.

“Yes, yes,” I said before putting her down.  By now someone had brought out an old rice bag full of broken toys and dumped everything on the floor. There were a couple dozen mega blocks, fewer pieces of lego, three or four dolls shedding their cotton insides, some broken trucks and airplanes, and two notebooks to go between all twenty kids. All this was being mixed with the inevitable pee that was only cleaned up after several requests.

It was an evolutionary race to see who got which toys. Just like in Canada, the most popular activities were building with blocks and chewing on everything else. Fiery purple dress girl was more interested in me. She wrapped her arms around my waist again. Aunty appeared in the doorway.

“Do not pamper her,” she said. “She always kicks other children.” I didn’t think there was much chance of anyone being pampered in that room, but I nodded my head.

My favourite toy was a notebook. Inside someone had written the abc’s. On the front inside cover, there was a blue and green advertisement.

“Not all chemicals are bad,” it read. “Without hydrogen and oxygen, there would be no water.” One of the older girls pointed to these words and over and over again, I read them to her.

At the Montessori school, I felt like the children spent way too much time washing their hands because they’d stuck their fingers in their noses. Some of the kids could never leave the sink. And the staff spent way too much time spraying tables and blocks with Lysol. What do you prefer, folks, the flu or cancer?

That said, as soon as I returned home from the Lysol-free soap-free orphanage, I saturated every inch of my body with thick layers of soap, and I scrubbed.


On Thursday, the room seemed a bit calmer. Seven or eight school aged girls were scattered around amidst the toddlers, and an older woman was sitting in a chair in a corner rubbing oil onto each child’s hair.

“Songs?” the older house mother asked me. During my Montessori days, I used to dread circle time. Whenever I whined about it, the Boatman would make fun of me.

“Sounds so stressful,” he would say. Well, it was. If the kids didn’t like the song, which usually they didn’t, they would start rolling around on the floor and being obnoxious. Then I would have to try and reel them in speaking only French, which they didn’t understand. Hopeless and humiliating. All French teachers cry in the bathroom. But at the orphanage, the kids were really into it. Although it took half a century to get everyone into a circle, once we figured it out, everyone belted out the ABC’s like their lives depended on it. I also taught them the chicken dance. It was pretty adorable. The older girls went through their repertoire of Indian songs with tons of actions while the smaller ones watched in awe.

 One girl called out, “Exercise,” and I made up a bunch of exercises on the spot. Then the bigger girls left and it was just me and the little ones and the old lady with the oil. A young mother came in with her new baby. I don’t know if she worked there or not. All the kids sat around her and looked at the little baby sitting in her mother’s lap. Seemed like a brutal tease to me. There was such a noticeable difference between the baby with the mother and the orphans. Their eyes were so different. Suddenly, the mother got a really angry look on her face and wacked the little boy who was sitting beside her in the back. I’m not sure what he did. He wasn’t more than three. He started to cry and I put him in my lap. After the lady left, the kids started playing with broken toys again. Another old lady joined the room. She hit a couple of kids with her stick. I’m not sure why. I really wanted to leave, though somehow I made it until noon. When I got home, I still missed kids.


The following Tuesday, the weather was cooler and I wondered if maybe I could take the kids outside. Because of their fragile health, the manager had told me she didn’t want the little ones out in the hot sun. She said that they went out in the morning and evening, but it’s hard to say. Nobody’s gross motor seemed particularly awesome from long hours playing outdoors.  I tried to ask one of the elder ladies if we could go out, but she seemed confused.

“Songs, dance, ABC’s,” she said. “Children like.” Dirty dark room it was. Before I could start my brilliant circle time, I saw that one of the tiniest kids was standing in a puddle urine. The oldest he could have been was eighteen months. His shorts were super wet and the pile of toys was just a couple of inches from the puddle.

“Wet,” I said to one of the staff. She was sitting in a chair eating chapatti and rice.

“Pee? Cloth?” I asked. Already a couple of kids had walked through the puddle and were tracking urine on the floor. The woman put her chapati down, ripped off the little boys shorts and used them to wipe up the pee. I remembered the rules I’d set about pee and shit. The little boy kept continued to play with no pants on. Within three minutes he was shitting on the floor. It wasn’t Delhi Belly poop, but it wouldn’t have been a breeze to pick up with a plastic bag.

“Um, clean?" I asked, pointing emphatically. The kid kept walking around with his dirty bum. The woman with the chapati yelled something at a young girl in the kitchen. Maybe she was twelve or thirteen. She sighed, yanked the little boy by his hand and dragged him to the bathroom.  There she hosed him off without looking at him. In a nearby bathroom stall, a three or four year old was squatting while excreting liquid diarrhea. This boy did have Mysore’s version of Delhi Belly, and I wasn't sure he was old enough to hose himself down properly. There was a sink outside the bathroom but I didn’t see any soap.

“Sick?” I said, pointing to the little boy in the toilet. There was still poop on the floor so I pointed to that too. The girl who’d hosed down the little boy went to the kitchen and came back with a pile of newspaper. She handed me a sheet. What was this for? Was it some sort of toy? Then she knelt down and cleaned up the poop with the newspaper. Only newspaper. I think maybe in India, there is some sort of social stigma surrounding cleaning up shit. Having cleaned up shit professionally for the better part of a decade, I feel no shame and minimal disgust while taking part in the process. But not with newspaper and not when there is no soap anywhere in sight

I used to have this big rant about how kids in the west wear diapers for too long and it is horrible for everybody’s pelvis and for the environment. Now this rant is dead.

I paced around the pee spot, the pooh spot, and all the broken toys.

“Sit,” said an elder with a stick. I didn’t understand how anyone could be in this room and sit down. The kids continued to eat the broken toys, rotating around the room like bees in captivity. A little girl, even smaller than the boy who had pooped on the floor wet her pants. The elder knelt down and gave her a huge wack. She was about to get dragged across the room when I walked out. It was 10:15.

I could have made a meeting with the manager, but then what? Judge her life’s work, buy some Lysol, make a big batch of play dough and then go home for Christmas.  I really liked that kid who shat on the floor. He was one of my favourites. Maybe he’ll be okay. It seems that once the kids start going to school, they do a little better. In the meantime, I really can’t watch toddlers get wacked, for any reason. And going twice a week won’t change much long term. Perhaps this is a cop-out, a way to justify my blissful experience here, which consists of one indulgent leisurely activity after another. Or maybe it was just too much. 

I regularly devour podcasts by Buddhist teacher Michael Stone. Over and over again, he says, “We are all happiest when we serve.” He says that we can’t keep doing our practice just to make us feel good, keeping our blinders on, oblivious to everyone else’s suffering. I am not oblivious, and yet, I am not doing a hell of a lot. Often when I hear Michael’s spiel about service, I cringe and think, please no. I can’t serve. I served when I was nineteen. I’m all done. I’m not happiest when I serve. I would rather stay home and blog about my pubic hair. Let’s hope this doesn’t affect my chances of getting my own orphan when the time comes.

“Who am I and what should I do?” Michael Stone says that everyone who goes to a psychologist is asking one of these two questions, and usually both. Coming to India is the equivalent of going to about seventeen psychologists, and at least a few yoga students here in Mysore are asking themselves these questions. What should we do? Some students are tutoring school kids with special needs. Others volunteer at a centre where young people were rescued from human trafficking. My friend fostered five little kittens, only three weeks old. Already four have died.   Yesterday there was a photo shoot raising money for the kids at the orphanage.  This is a kind initiative and I’m sure it won’t hurt, but I just don’t see how the money will prevent kids from getting hit when they pee on the floor.

All my life, I’ve watched my parents take care of people. They met at a group home for kids whose families were in temporary crisis. Often, my father would bring home young teenage boys. I remember them coming camping with us. At Christmastime, we always had people with nowhere else to go around the table. When I was sixteen, we started providing respite care for Glendon, a young boy with cerebral palsy. Four years later, when his mother could no longer take care of him, my parents took Glendon in as a foster child.  Even after they separated, my dad kept Glendon at his house for four years, while he was working full time as a schoolteacher.

Glendon. Rocking out on Lakewood Road
My mom has a bit of a Mother Teresa complex. She feels responsible for fixing everything and feels guilty when she can’t. Glendon is now 21 and almost as big as her. Every week, my mom goes to take him for a walk. But she can’t take him overnight like my father can, because she is too tiny. I always say that nobody loves Glendon the way my mother does. My father takes care of Glendon in a way that doesn’t seem to overwhelm him. As long as my father’s in town, he has Glendon overnight, feeding him, bathing him, and taking him for long walks or for swims in the lake.

I didn’t go to the orphanage to serve, or to be the change I want to see in the world. As I said, I just felt like hanging out with kids. Maybe if I was staying longer I would have done more than just walk away. I keep thinking about what constitutes a reasonable contribution. And how to make this contribution without inheriting my mother’s Mother Theresa Complex or becoming an arrogant and obnoxious white saviour figure. Until I figure this out, my contribution is postponed.

“Let God take care of the world, you take care of your anus.” Pattabhi Jois said this once. It is not one of his most beloved and frequently referenced sayings. He is talking about squeezing your anus until moula bandha works its magic deep inside your pelvis and everything becomes beautiful. Probably he was trying to cure Mother Theresa Complexes. My mother doesn’t know about moula bandha, but she always says, “Let God take care of it.” She has to tell herself this or else she worries constantly about Glendon and all the kids in the world like Glendon, and how she’s not fixing everything for everyone. Bless my mother, and bless everyone out there who is raising money and saving kittens. Bless those little kids eating dirty, broken toys, and you know what, bless the ladies watching them. Whatever blessing means. I conclude with no wisdom, and no real solution. People shouldn’t kill their babies, and I don’t know where else they can leave them. I could say something cheeky about the pull-out method, but I will almost surely end up sounding insensitive and obscene.

God may or may not help. Only taking care of my anus will probably not yield fruits beyond narcissism and neurosis. I wanted all the yoga students to read about the orphans in the hopes that it might cure some of their self-absorption and sacro-iliac angst. This is what the psychologists call projecting. When I was a grumpy French teacher, I used to believe that I was totally dead inside. My experience with kids in India and the orphanage has shown me that there is more in my heart than cynicism, sarcasm and neurosis. I suppose this is somewhat of a relief.

At the yoga shala, our chanting instructor has made some very subtle hints about not bringing loud children to chanting. So now we can chant about sun gods, peace and elephants without being disrupted.  As serene and spiritual as this is, I feel like something is missing.

I still think about kids the whole time.
The End.

Do Not Kill Your Baby
Exuberant Bodhisattva on Facebook

A Broken Body Is Not A Broken Spirit
Not Separate From All That Is



  1. I love this, o fellow Canadian and skeptical but hopeful Astanga yoga practitioner.

  2. this was the most heartbreaking post i have ever read. everything about it.
    i agree- there is something missing/off about forced peacefulness.
    i am in awe that you volunteered for three days....

    what is interesting is that after 8 years of working w special needs kiddos I don't have the same reaction as you described during your montessori days- i don't mind being hit, toys thrown at, yelled at, children's tears (well, ok mostly I don't mind when they are for attention), but I do mind pee and poop. That said- handling that many children at once would definitely not be on my "want to do" list.

  3. This was such a powerful post. I like children but I would have been quickly overwhelmed in that environment. I'm in awe of your experience. Thank you for sharing it.