Three weddings, one week

To have a large wedding in South India signifies wealth and prosperity. If your neighbor’s cousin’s friend’s sister-in-law decides to invite her Bollywood instructor, and, while she’s at it, everyone else in the Bollywood class, the more the merrier! Furthermore, to have foreign guests at one’s wedding is seen as an honor, and South Indians are very welcoming of [white, western] foreign guests. So, when I was invited to three weddings in one week, I wasn’t as surprised as you might expect. The weddings, themselves, however, were filled with surprises.

Wedding 1

When I groggily opened my door at 4:50am in response to fervent knocking, my ammaa was surprised I hadn’t already woken myself up. We had planned to leave the house at 6am for a 6:30am wedding, and evidently, I needed more than a full hour to get ready.

My ammaa dressed me in my saree, combed and pulled back my hair, gave me necklaces, earrings and bangles to wear, and of course, a bindi.

Hindu weddings tend to be morning occasions, because morning hours are considered “auspicious.” The exact time is astrologically calculated by a priest. This sets up the new couple for a happy marriage.


The bride is a distant relative of my ammaa‘s. Decorated like a goddess, she was adorned in a gold and blue saree, her hair was meticulously braided and enhanced with rhinestones, her arms were painted with detailed henna, and her wrists were hidden beneath gold bangles. The wedding saree of the bride is a gift expected from the groom’s family. The bride receives it on stage at the wedding, and then changes her dress before the ceremony with the groom begins.


I’ll be honest. For the majority of the wedding ceremony, I had no idea what was happening, and am not qualified to talk about the significance of each processional act (if you’re really curious what happens at a South Indian Hindu Wedding/why it happens, I whole-heartedly endorse your googling “South Indian Hindu wedding processional,” which I guarantee will grant you much more reliable knowledge than I can).

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Here’s my summary. The bride and groom separately entered and left the wedding stage multiple times. Family members often joined. Music blared throughout the hall (vows are not exchanged orally; audience members are free to talk amongst themselves throughout the ceremony). Multiple poojas (communions between people and God created through a series of ceremonial actions) were performed. Food was eaten. The bride was showered in rice, confetti, and attention. A camera crew documented the whole thing. The bride and groom exchanged garlands. We ate.

To honor her parents, the bride washes their feet.
The parents of the bride and groom exchange gifts, foods, and garlands.
Relatives shower the bride in rice.

Suddenly, they were married. Two people who had probably explored each other’s Facebook pages to make sure they were suitable, who had then spoken on the phone a few times, and who had met in person once or twice, were now committed to spending their lives together. Their parents arranged the partnership based on knowledge of their future son’s/daughter’s spouse they acquired through distant relatives (Do they drink? Do they smoke? Do they have a reliable income, and similar habits of life?). The bride and groom are, necessarily, of the same caste. Marriage is a matter of practicality, trust, perseverance, and hopefully, joy.


I couldn’t help but impose western biases as I watched this wedding, though. To me, the bride appeared terrified at worst, indifferent at best, and happy only once or twice. The bride and groom hardly, if ever, made eye contact. My Caste, Gender, and Politics professor explained to me, though, that women are:

  • A) Not used to such an inordinate amount of attention (literally decorated and put on stage in front of hundreds of guests)
  • B) Not encouraged to express too much emotion. Remaining reserved is more respectable
  • C) Not in control of what’s going on during the ceremony, and probably anxious for it to be over


The bride, therefore, may have been (and hopefully was) excited about her marriage, but too stifled or anxious to express her happiness in the setting of a loud, crowded marriage hall in which she was the center of attention.


My favorite aspect of the ceremony was a game played by the bride and groom on stage, in which they competed to fish a ring out of a large ceramic pot, as an ice breaker, of sorts. Both the bride and groom laughed and smiled. They seemed happy to be together.


Still, I wondered, what if he talks too much? What if they find each other to be tolerable, but nothing more?  What if they’re not sexually compatible? What if he doesn’t like her cooking? What if she doesn’t want to cook for him? What if they hate each other? What if abuse, what if domestic violence, what if, what if, what if?! The mentality surrounding marriages here seems to be that if problems arise, they can be dealt with, no matter how severe. If a problem is severe enough, the parents of the bride and groom will meet to discuss options, to intervene, and to solve the problem. Divorce is uncommon and highly stigmatized.

Granted, these mentalities are present in the U.S., too. Divorce certainly isn’t smiled upon, and people can (and do) radically change throughout marriages. A bride and groom in the U.S. can discover, within a month or within 10 years, that they’re completely incompatible. Domestic violence certainly occurs in the U.S., and marriages are not the fairytales our culture tells us they are.

People can find themselves stuck or will themselves to be stuck in mediocre partnerships anywhere in the world. This is not particular to arranged marriages. Nonetheless, at this wedding, perhaps because arranged marriages are so novel to me, I found myself thinking harder about the idea of “stuckness.”

The commitment to working through problems with a partner does not necessarily connote stuckness. This commitment in itself can be seen as a form of letting go: letting go of the idea of perfection, letting go of the happily-ever-after narrative we’re all fed, letting go of the perpetual search for something more, something better, something righter, something that may or may not exist.

To me, though, not being stuck also means having the agency to gracefully let go of things, people, and relationships not meant for us, especially things, people, and relationships that cause us harm. I believe all people are worthy of respect, and I believe in the freedom to move on from disrespectful partners.

I believe in freedom, period. I don’t intend to imply that people who find themselves in arranged, Hindu marriages are any less free than couples in the U.S. who choose the partners they marry. This was the very thought I struggled to combat as I sat through the wedding. As poojas and photo shoots and confetti throwing and garland-exchanging commenced, I tried, with all my heart, to temper my brain’s tireless resolve to ask, again and again, what if…? 


Wedding 2

The second Hindu wedding I was invited to, I did not attend. The wedding was scheduled for 6:30pm, which was odd for a Hindu wedding (inauspicious hours), but nonetheless, adorned in sarees, our group of 10 American students showed up to the wedding hall, only to discover we were 12 hours late. The wedding had commenced at 6:30am, and our invitation had been misprinted. Instead, we went out for a delectable buffet dinner. Win-win.

Queen Chloe, surviving and thriving in India.

Wedding 3


The third wedding was a Christian wedding. I was invited by the founder of a non-profit I had just begun to volunteer for.

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We entered a giant cathedral filled with wooden pews arranged in a semi circle. A marching band greeted wedding guests at the entrance with the booming sound of drums. The bride wore a pink saree and a wedding accessory I actually recognized: a white veil. She looked stunning.


The groom, and then the bride, walked down the aisle, meeting at the altar to alternatively kneel and stand before the priests who officiated the wedding. Guests were led in Tamil prayer songs. Verses from the Bible about love and commitment were shared by a priest, mostly in Tamil. The bride and groom were repeatedly blessed. They signed their legal marriage papers right there in the cathedral, and off to the reception they went!


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This, too, was an arranged marriage. But the smiles on the faces of the bride and groom throughout the ceremony gave me less pause about the arrangement than I had felt at the Hindu wedding.

At the reception, the bride and groom fed each other cake. Christian songs played (in English!), as did some Hawaiian music and some Elvis Presley, which made me chuckle. Honored guests made speeches. A video and photo crew, again, documented the entire occasion. Just like at the Hindu wedding, long lines formed, as guests waited to pose for pictures with the bride and groom.


I congratulated the couple, and wished them happiness.


Many of the same what ifs popped into my head as did in the first wedding, but I was a little more desensitized to my own questions after having thought about them so much already, and perhaps a little more comfortable with a wedding that incorporated features of the western weddings I’m used to.

This is why I’m here. I know I’m biased. I will always be biased. I will always be most comfortable with what I’m used to. But evaluating the things in this culture that make me tick, that make me ask, ‘How? Why? What if…?’ reminds me that I should be asking the same questions of things I readily accept within my own culture. On the other hand, I wonder if accepting what we’re taught without ample evaluation of each and every “norm” makes for a more contented life. How this contentment perpetuates systemic inequality, I’m still grappling with, but I’m thankful to be thinking.

….And, I’ll be honest, I’m thankful that I don’t have to worry about my parents arranging a wedding for me anytime soon (ever)…


Two Weeks in India

India. I’ve been in India for two weeks. It confounds me that two weeks can feel like a lifetime, but as I perused the shelves of a temple’s library last night, I smiled at the title, “Timelessness in Time,” so maybe I am picking up some of the culture.

I don’t know if I’ll ever not be overwhelmed, here. Between the Hindi ceremonies and the meals and the countless new experiences for which I am immensely grateful, I miss time to recharge. To rest. To reflect.

My brain struggles to keep up with the constant stream of basic, day-to-day activities I’m relearning. Eating. Sleeping. Conversing. Writing. Reading. Walking. Dressing. I often feel like an infant. Simple things evoke strong reactions, whether of reverence or of disgust. Diligent self-examination follows.

I would love to pet my dog right now, or toss a frisbee around CC’s quad, or spend a night Netflix bingeing like never before with a pint of vegan Ben & Jerry’s and no tomorrow.

Comfort, thus far in my Indian stay, has been rare.

But, in the midst of the heat, dust and incense smoke; new faces and copious amounts of rice; jasmine flowers (mallikai puu) and little boys asking to shake my hand; and feeling lost and feeling found, there are moments of transcendent clarity.

When my host dad is speaking to me about destiny as we sit on temple steps and, out of nowhere, it begins to rain.


When I don a freshly washed salwar kameez after a cool shower.

When my rickshaw driver laughs and laughs at the five American (TALL) women who try to fit into the backseat, successfully, might I add!


When my taataa, who hardly speaks English and generally remains silent, emerges from his bedroom in the morning, approaches me, and says, slowly, “my granddaughter.”

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When I notice the light of our shrine’s candles reflecting in my ammaa‘s eyes as she prays to Krishna.


In these moments, I let go. Breathe in … and out. In these moments, my total disorientation makes me feel more oriented than I ever have in the U.S. My body becomes my comfort and my home.


These are the moments I think of when I need to remind myself that, as a wise friend once told me, “Wherever I am, I am where I’m meant to be.”


When I type the word, I-n-d-i-a, and it is more to me now than a concept of a place half a world away.


Madurai, Tamilnadu, India – en vitu (my home). 

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A Walk through Thanjavore (I’m in India!)

36 hours of travel later, I made it to South India! There is too much new right now to summarize with words. I’m enjoying my ignorance, though. It is unbelievably refreshing to know nothing of a place, to look around every corner in awe, and for daily experiences to require skills I don’t yet possess.

Because I know nothing, I feel so much freedom to make mistakes, and thus, freedom to try. Here’s to learning Tamil script, which chutney pairs best with idli in the morning, how to use the eastern latrine, the appropriate number of rupis to pay for an auto-rickshaw ride, and how to take photos in focus while managing to avoid getting hit by buses or losing your cohort of adventurers.

Speaking of, this was my best attempt at documenting our brief walk yesterday through Thanjavore.


Walking through the streets is as crazy as everyone told me it would be. And then some.







People often notice and look into my camera, whether I intend for them to be the object of my photos or not.


I am privileged to spend the next few months exploring as much as I can of this place, these people, and this life.

we did keep living, didn’t we

Sometimes I think about all of the things that happen to us in our lives, big things and little things. Wind whipping hair into our mouths as we walk to school one morning and people who just show up and change the whole world and skyscrapers and rivers and twisted ankles from cracks in the sidewalk we didn’t see. I think about how things would be different if that apple didn’t (allegedly) hit Newton’s head and if Jamie didn’t kiss me in the dark and if … we weren’t here.


How did we get here?

And I ask myself why we kept living. How did we manage to survive all those years of shouting into the void and scraping our knees looking for a light switch, only to discover the power was out? How did we persevere through paper cuts and sore muscles, friendships that faded with no warning and years that passed as if that’s just what years do.

We did keep living, didn’t we?

Things changed. We grew up. How funny how few words can contain so much of us, of our hearts. And everyone goes through it and everyone is always going through it, so we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about what’s happening to us. It’s never the last time until 10 years have gone by and we’re drinking a beer with a close acquaintance and we remember that night we had a dance party with all of our friends outside the hockey rink on a Tuesday, or closed the 7th Harry Potter book and smiled, or asked our parents to help us soften butter in the microwave for m&m cookies, and it dons on us, like the chill that slowly sends goosebumps down your neck after the sun goes down, “That really was the last time.” Like you don’t realize you’re cold until you feel yourself shiver.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be who I was back then. I don’t know if I’ll ever be anyone else.

Sometimes, it hits me when I’m riding my bike in the middle of the street just past sunset. Or sitting on my front porch, thinking about everything and nothing simultaneously.


I think about all of the things we make happen in our lives, big things and little things. We make love and we make mistakes and we make art and we make boredom and terror and definitions that help us feel like we have something to hold onto. Sometimes, it hits me like a brick wall I’ve been running at full speed since I was seven years old and suddenly I’m seven years old again. And I still don’t have all of the answers. And I feel a tug on my heartstrings to write something like this, and then I read it and laugh because I’m reminded that I’m not unique. How extraordinary that this is universal! I think about how, evidently, I’m here. And evidently you’re here-there, somewhere in the world. And if we close our eyes hard enough, we can feel, just for a moment, as though we’re together in this.


We did keep living, didn’t we.

welcome to my blog

I  sometimes hear voices and see pictures in my head.


Short stories. Photos. Poems. Songs. Videos. Long and rambling late-night thoughts, essays, and rants.

Usually, they end up taking the form of notes filed away somewhere in my long series of half-finished Google Docs. But today, that’s changing.

Author Caitlin R. Kiernan said, “Language is a poor enough means of communication as it is. So we should use all the words we can.” I agree with Kiernan. I love the idea that I am feeling some particular way in this particular moment, some way I will never quite feel again, some way you have never felt in the exact way that I feel it, and that no matter how hard I try to express myself, words and images will fail me. (Or if they succeed, I’ll have no way of knowing, and neither will you.) My goal is to bring you as close to my truth as I can, and to strive to understand yours.

Right now, my truth is muddled and I am confused. I am confused about the disjointed state of my community, my country, and my world. I feel desperate for more love, more effort between people, and more optimism.

I also feel confused about myself. This year, I became more aware of my own unreasonable expectations, ego, and fallibility than ever before (heartbreak is a b*tch). I see how this fallibility is applicable to my relationships, to my core beliefs, and to my most cherished, guarded dreams.

Photo by Corrina Leatherwood
Photo by Corrina Leatherwood

I am confused about the role of resolution in letting go. I am confused about the line between self and other, where independence should end and where community should begin. I am confused about how to make a home within skin I haven’t yet learned to love, in an environment that is constantly shifting.

I am searching for something solid to hold, uncertain if that solid exists, unsure of where to find it, and often I wonder if the act of searching is a childish and ultimately fruitless pursuit.

Sometimes, I feel like Andy Dwyer in this gif:

Nonetheless, I am deeply hopeful.

I look at the people around me, and the storm in my heart calms. I am immensely thankful. I see so much work, so much strength, and so much thought. I hear stories of inexplicable resilience, bear witness to overwhelming bravery, and am inspired. I see frustration and forgiveness. I see faith. I look at humanity, and, at its core, as far as I can tell from my mere 19 years of life, I see love.

shoutout to mom & dad

I’ve gone through more and less outspoken phases of life. There’s a Jack Johnson song that goes, “The world has its ways/To quiet us down,” and he’s right. But I see such a dire need in our world right now for more authenticity. And, to be honest, I see a dire need within myself to become more me again.

Unapologetic, fearless (aside from fear of spiders), and strong-willed Kaitlyn. Lake Siskiyou, California. 1999. Photo by Nancy Hickmann.

This begins with reflection, vulnerability, and resolution. Sharing what I see, hear, and feel empowers me, despite feeling timid about sharing it.

So I started a blog. And I’ve accumulated quite a few of the aforementioned stories, poems, photos, videos and rambling thoughts over the years of self-censorship. I hope you enjoy!

Peace, love and hugs,