When I finally found the elephant I had traveled half way around the world to meet, she really wasn’t much of an elephant any more.
That little Temple Elephant swaying and straining against her chains slid into that scarred space behind my heart and would not let me forget what I’d seen.
The first day I met her I got good and lost walking to the temple through the noisy, disorienting city streets of Colombo. The birdsong and soft wild sounds of my previous few weeks in the rural villages of central Sri Lanka were replaced with what I’m pretty sure are the loudest horns on the most buses in the smallest area possible, and I couldn’t imagine how a holy Temple Elephant could live in the cacophony and feel it was holy from her point of view.
I smelled the incense steps before I turned the corner that finally brought me eye to eye with Ganga. Smoke from lanterns reverently lit spiraled upward, and flowers bathed the warm air in breezy sweetness as people on their way to pray for compassion streamed past the head-bobbing, empty-eyed little elephant.
Tourists from all over the world walked past her too, but usually after looking around the courtyard uncomfortably, willing themselves to make sense of the Temple’s reverential beauty juxtaposed against the forlorn little creature on display and the trash and refuse all around her. Not only did the emperor have no clothes on, but the elephant in the room seemed utterly invisible.
What to do?
In the village when I asked about a problem, the soft-spoken women would reply, “What to do?” and for the 3 days I watched people watch Ganga it became a mantra of sorts: What to do? What to do? When you implore “why isn’t anybody doing something about this” and still you don’t turn away, then you realize that “anybody” is you, and into the fire of transformation you go.
What do you do when you can’t turn away? You turn toward. You get off your couch or your cushion or your pew or your knees and you turn toward the very thing you wish you didn’t know.
The push I felt from Ganga was less of a request to “turn toward” and more of a sort of hurtling into the bubbling froth of grassroots activism, nonprofit start-ups, and a tip-to-tail tumbling into the stories about where the lives of people and elephants touch.
It’s a humbling practice as I try to work with a necessary patience that I never, ever feel, knowing each moment of every day she is still there, tied up in cultural servitude.
It’s been over a year now since I first learned about her, and half as long since I watched her repeatedly touch the tip of her trunk to the chain that shackled her front leg as she listlessly swayed toward some refuge in her memory.
Trumpeting and Charging Forward
A friend and I spoke to an enthusiastic group of 4th graders about an elephant at their local zoo who has lived in the exhibit for over 50 years, sharing how it is up to all of us to decide how to care for one another in the most merciful, humane way possible.
As the bell sounded for their next class, they were glowing with excitement, trumpeting and charging about, not unlike the small elephants whose future they had decided they would change. Hugging them and loving their conviction, I assured them “We can do it! We can do it!”
And then as we were leaving, a hopeful 9 year old girl excitedly asked me how many elephants I’ve saved so far. It was all I could do to answer her. Not one.