Punctuate Life

Pause Breathe Relax


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The Hollow Truth

After years of trying to put myself together and reach the ideal I set for myself, it finally feels like I have succeeded. I have a home, a job, a family, vacations when I want and even where I want. And yet I feel like I have paid a steep price. When all the hollow material things came together, the things that really mattered started falling apart, pillar after sturdy pillar crumbling to dust before my eyes as I hankered after shallow stuff in an effort to fill the void and the numbness where love once dwelt. Maybe it’s not my destiny to have it all? Or is there even such a thing – not the destiny bit but the have it all bit.

We often get beguiled by the smiling pictures on social media. But maybe just maybe there is a lurking sadness behind those eyes. Some deep dark mystery that keeps those photo-shopped faces awake at night. Then again I look inside and feel like my crumbling pillars were built on foundations of soft sand. Sand that was wont to shift and shake those pillars for good measure. I feel all alone in the world with my checklist of accomplishments which only feel important till you actually check them off. After that they are just items on an impossible list that keep growing. Maybe it stems from my relentless need to prove myself. I’m not sure who I’m trying to prove myself to or what I’m trying to prove anymore. But it looks like I spent the greater part of the last decade doing that. But I’m not puffed up with pride. I just feel hollow, empty, and quite ordinary.

Maybe hollow is a good place to start. Maybe I can fill it with things that bring me joy and love. But first I need to dust off the debris and discard it. I can’t fill my hollow with the rubble I intend to leave behind. I cannot build over the crumbled remains or anywhere near it. I’m going to have to find some sturdy ground to plant my feet and start building anew. I don’t know the where or the how but I do know that I can’t put all the pieces back and keep trying to build stuff after it breaks down time after time. I’m just tired of reinventing myself and trying to make things work when I clearly know they won’t. Trying to hold onto crumbling pillars when I know I could get buried under them. And I did get buried in the past and had to crawl out of it all by myself. One must learn from the past or be prepared to keep repeating it.

It is time. Time to build something worthy of me.


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The Story of the Temple

Here’s the story of the famous temple in South India where people celebrate their 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays, and where we celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday. There once lived a sage who was a great devotee of Shiva. Every day he would joyfully offer his prayers to Shiva. One day however the sage was a little downcast when doing his daily poojas. Shiva appeared before him and asked him why he was not his usual happy self. The sage told Shiva that he had no children and that was the cause of his misery. Shiva smiled and blessed him with a baby boy. But he warned the sage that the boy would only live till the age of sixteen. The sage was ecstatic and he named the boy Markandeya. When the boy turned five, his father taught him how to do Shiva pooja. The boy prayed to Lord Shiva every day without fail. When he was going to turn sixteen, his distraught parents told him that his end was near.

On his 16th birthday, Markandeya was praying to Shiva when Yama, the god of death came for him. Yama told Markandeya that his time was up and that he had to go with him. Markandeya ignored him and continued with his pooja. Yama repeatedly called the boy but he refused to go with him. Yama, livid with rage, took his noose and threw it around the boy. Unfortunately, Yama’s noose fell over Shiva’s idol. Shiva flew into a rage and annihilated Yama.

Shiva granted Markandeya the boon of immortality, so he would stay 16 forever. Markandeya was so grateful to Shiva that he travelled from one Shiva temple to another singing 16 verses in praise of Shiva. The last temple which also happened to be the 108th temple he visited was Thirukadaiyur. “Kadaisi” means last in Tamil. The deity in this temple is Shiva accompanied by Markandeya and a vanquished Yama underfoot. Abirami, Shiva’s consort is flanked by Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Right across from the deity is a shrine for Yama.

The story goes that after Yama was vanquished, there were no deaths on earth, but the births continued unabated. Mother Earth went running to Lord Shiva lamenting that the burden was too much for her to bear. She begged Shiva to do something. Shiva in his infinite mercy released Yama and gave him back his powers. With Yama back in his post, births and deaths were balanced out and Mother Earth heaved a sigh of relief.

The number 16 shows up in the temple quite often. They performed 16 homams for my Dad’s 70th birthday. Sixteen kalashams or pots of water were poured on my parents. The priests recited the 16 verses composed by Markandeya and we had to do 16 namaskarams or prostrations. The belief is that people who visit this temple will also be granted a long, happy, and prosperous life. And I do wish that for my parents and for my aunts and uncle who accompanied us.


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An Unforgettable Trip

My father just celebrated a milestone birthday. On March 1st he turned 70. Ten years ago I had flown down from Boston with hopes of celebrating my grandma’s 80th birthday and my Dad’s 60th birthday back to back. But that was not to be, my grandma passed away a day shy of her 80th birthday and her cake didn’t get any candles and was never cut. We couldn’t celebrate my Dad’s birthday in a big way. It was just a quiet lunch with immediate family and one close friend from his Monfort school days.

I had  planned to go home for Papa’s 70th birthday. I hadn’t been home since we moved back from India after living there for a year. Two and a half years. I was so ready to go home to my parents. I ended up going alone because the kids had school and couldn’t take off for two weeks.

I took a day off from work to go shopping for gifts. After several hours spent wandering around the mall and its menagerie of shops, I still couldn’t find one gift befitting the occasion. So I settled for several smaller gifts. Books, a t-shirt that said “Papa” and a stash of letters addressed to “My Incredible Dad.” You see he is always asking me to write letters and I can never find time to sit down and write to him except when I’m waiting at airports to board a flight.

When I landed in Chennai, the city gave me its usual stinky welcome and I was on sensory overload for the next two weeks. The food had an exotic taste to it (although I pretty much cooked the same thing back in the U.S.). The vivid colors, the crowds, the noise engulfed me and so did the love of my parents. With the kids and my brother absent, I was the sole object of their affection! And how I basked in it.

I gave my Dad one gift every day up until his birthday. I baked a chocolate cake for him, that didn’t turn out as well as I wanted it to. (Note to self: Bring high quality cocoa powder from the U.S. next time.) But it was consumed in two days and I’m guessing my parents loved it.

My dear friend N came down from Pondicherry a day before my Dad’s birthday. Since her birthday had just passed we decided to celebrate with a black forest cake. The girl loves Italian, so we walked down to “Little Italy’s” and stuffed ourselves with garlic bread, lasagna, and gnocchi. My Dad treated us to ice cream at Amadova. We ended up eating “Bournvita” flavored ice cream to counter our over indulgence but ended up too stuffed for our own good. Suffice to say the walk back home was surprisingly long and hard.

On March 1st I gave my Dad the stash of letters, an Origami card from his granddaughter, and a card and some NC chocolates from my friend at work. My Dad’s friend from his school days (the same one who came down to celebrate his 60th birthday) showed up with a humungous chocolate cake and other gifts. My mom and I made puris and potatoes (my Dad’s favorite), curd rice, grated carrots, paneer curry, fried mushrooms, and fried rice for lunch. N left for Pondicherry after lunch.

In the evening, we put two candles (7 and 0) on the cake and had my Dad cut it. We all took turns feeding him cake. His friend, ever playful, tried to put cake all over Papa’s face but only succeeded in smearing some on his cheek. His nephew came over to pick him up later that evening. I have to say that some friends are one in a million and once you find a friend like that you hold onto them for rest of your life. And Uncle V is definitely such a friend. Even my friend N, who reads people like she’s a psychic, could tell he is special.

Next day, it was my turn to be graced by a visit from my friend from school. J and I ended up giggling like school girls and then she took me out to have some Indo-Chinese fare with her lovely daughters. I stuffed myself with chop suey, gobi Manchurian, chilli mushroom and fried rice. The girls insisted on ordering fried ice cream – a desert I had heard of but had never sampled. The verdict? I loved it and would definitely order it again.

After a couple of days my aunt flew down from Mumbai. Papa and I rode the metro rail to receive her at the airport. I have to say the station and the trains were cleaner than the New York metro. It was not crowded and shined like new. The white straps hanging from the top of the train to my great surprise weren’t grimy or grey.

The next morning my aunt and uncle came down from Kerala. My parents had bought sarees for all of us and we went shopping for matching blouses that evening. Again you can spend hours in saree shops looking at all the lovely weaves, hues, and designs. But we had rush back home and pack for our big trip the next day.

After packing way too much food (which we didn’t end up eating) we left early next morning for Thirukadaiyur, a temple town famous for celebrating 60th, 70th, 75th, and 80th birthdays. Six hours and many kilometers later we reached there safely, thanks to a driver who didn’t feel the need to race against time. After resting for a bit, we proceeded to the temple for the 1st set of poojas. (Look out for my next blog post on the story behind the temple.)

My dad and mom exchanged garlands while the nadaswaram and drums played and escorted them to the place where the priests were waiting for us. Sixteen homams had to be done and some of them were done that evening. The next day we were back at the temple at 8.00 a.m. where my parents garlanded each other again to the accompaniment of the drums and nadaswaram as is the custom at Hindu weddings. After a few more poojas and homams we proceeded to pour 16 pots of water on them. My mom shivered as the cold water hit her. After they changed into dry clothes, they garlanded each other again and we all sought their blessings. The very same day we returned back to Chennai and the next day I had to return back to the U.S. My whirlwind trip had come to an end.

Now that I’m back, the whole trip is like a blur. But I remember my mom’s soft idlis and sambar, my dad rubbing tiger balm on my swollen feet, my aunt letting me sleep on her lap when we were driving back to Chennai, my other aunt stitching a blouse for my daughter, and my uncle packing idols of Ganesha for me and staying up with me when I couldn’t sleep due to jet lag. I remember the unconditional love that only parents can give you and the sweet embrace of my friends. I will cherish this trip for years to come and I hope and pray that I get to spend many such precious moments with my parents and my extended family and friends.


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Goddess

I am a goddess and I know it,

I don’t need external validation

To feel this truth that burns within me

I don’t need to fit into old constructs

Of what that might mean to you

You  or you…

 

It is the feeling of being complete

Within and without

The feeling of being in the flow

The feeling of love flowing from me

To me…

Inundating me with bliss

Filling all those holes left by others.

 

It is that inner knowing that everything

Will be as right as rain

Even amidst the deepest pain

I know I will emerge

Victorious again.

 

I am a goddess and I know it.

Look deep into my eyes and you

Might get a glimpse of it.

The power of love that has no boundaries,

That knows to give as well as receive.

 

That knows when to walk away

And when to engage in a warm embrace

I am a goddess and I am enough,

Enough, enough!


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My 30 Days of Gratitude

This is something I started two years ago and get excited about doing every year. Some of you have also taken this up and I’m sure you find it as rewarding as I do. This month was wonderful, with a trip to see fall colors and also a trip to the beach. I also took some time to pamper myself. And when I was having a rough week and wasn’t feeling particularly thankful, a friend gave me a wonderful card and bookmark reminding me that, “There is always something to be thankful for!”

Day 1
I am thankful for my job and the financial independence that comes with it.
Day 2
am thankful for my hybrid car and chargers at work.
Day 3
I am thankful for the beautiful fall colors that everyone can enjoy.
Day 4 (Trip to western NC to see fall colors)
I am thankful for vacations and the opportunity to unwind and take a break from  the routine.
Day 5
I am thankful for my good health and energy that helps me accomplish all that I need to do at work and home.
Day 6
I am thankful for a full pantry and the ability to generously donate to those who need help.
Day 7
I am thankful for my beautiful home that keeps me safe and sheltered.
Day 8
I am thankful for the produce from my garden. (Okra, tomato, spinach, mint, oregano, and carrots.)
Day 9
I am thankful for my beautiful children, Anjali and Nitin. They fill my heart with joy and pride.
Day 10
I am thankful for my parents and for their support, love, and faith in me.
Day 11
I am thankful for the infinite and omnipresent source of all love and light. For guidance, grace, and infinite miracles.
Day 12
I am thankful for technology. It helps me keep in touch with friends and family around the world.
Day 13
I am thankful for my brother Dinesh Damodran. He is a bag of surprises. One day he is at a Vipasana meditation retreat and the next day he is cooking zafrani pulao for friends. He is not afraid to try new things and I’m always eager to hear about his latest adventure. Happy birthday Dini. May the next year be filled with new adventures and happy travels.
Day 14
I am thankful for my brother Rohit Singh. For all the laughs and for being so protective of me.  Here’s wishing you happiness and success always.
Day 15
I am thankful for powerful women who are my role models. Dadima you are #1 on the list. Whenever I feel stymied I just ask myself,  what would dadi do? I love you and miss you. Waiting for the day we will meet again.
Day 16
I am thankful for the men in my life who treat women with respect. They set the standards for everyone else. #1 on my list is my dad.
Day 17
I am thankful for friends like Namami Ghosh. Sometimes talking to a friend who will just listen is the best therapy.
Day 18
I am thankful for meditation, reiki, and quiet time to rejuvenate my spirit.
Day 19
I am thankful for a good education and most importantly the discernment that comes with it. And also for the varied life experiences that have shaped me.
Day 20
I am thankful for teachers (Mabel Erevelles and Nirupama Prasad) and gurus, both in this world and beyond for inspiring me, saving me many times over, and for helping me evolve as a person.
Day 21
I am thankful for Karen Warmbein and her friendship. Today, she brightened up my day with this beautiful card.
Day 22
Thankful for a day dedicated to giving thanks, good food, and family. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Day 23
I am thankful for warm clothes and heating and for wonderful friends who warm my heart.
Day 24 (Trip to Myrtle Beach, SC)
I am thankful for beaches and oceans, my happy place. I am thankful for myself because today I picked up a lot of trash from the beach.
Day 25
I am thankful for sacred space, to get away from the maddening world and just be with myself.
Day 26
I am thankful for time. Time to volunteer, read, bake, take walks, meditate, and sleep. Thankful for more than enough time to do the things I love.
Day 27
I am thankful for efficient appliances that help me manage my chores without a maid. I am thankful for all the women who did chores for me when I was growing up. Only now do I really appreciate what they did.
Day 28
I am thankful for my aunt Raji S Nair for always being there for me and praying for me. Love you Valliamma.
Day 29
I am thankful for my blog, creativity, and my way with words.
Day 30
I am thankful for all the blessings coming my way – all the joy, abundance, laughter, good times, and love.
What are you thankful for? I’d love to hear from you!

 


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Man Against Man

As I was driving to work one day with my son, I stopped at a signal and saw the road in front of me teeming with police vehicles. One lane on the opposite side of the road was blocked by a police car. Around eight to ten officers were crowding over something. On looking closer, it appeared as though they were desperately trying to hold down something, using their batons to beat down some terrible dangerous beast. All I could see were their bodies pressing down and arresting the motion of whatever was under them. I gasped when I saw a naked foot sticking out from the crowd of black uniforms. My stomach churned as I realized there were ten police officers holding this man down, several of them pummeling him repeatedly with their batons.

I was filled with loathing. Excessive force, police brutality and other words and faces of many people who suffered the same fate flooded my mind. I felt sick and couldn’t breathe. It was like someone weighing 200 pounds was sitting on my chest.

It is one thing watching clips of police using excessive force and violence on citizens in the comfort of your living room. Watching it unfold in broad daylight just does something to you. I realized my son was in the car with me. I had to say something.

“Oh my God! It’s a man. I don’t care what he did but they can’t do this! This is horrible.”

Images from the past came tumbling into my mind. Men beaten to death by cops just because they could. Kids whose lives were snuffed out because an officer felt threatened and fired his gun. The man who got strangled by a cop. A senior citizen pushed around. A woman pulled by her hair at the beach.

What about all the images that never saw the light of day because no one captured them? What about what goes on in jails behind closed doors? I respect law enforcement but there is a fine line between enforcing the law and treating another person as a lesser being who deserves to be silenced, maimed or even killed.

It was a while again before I could breathe again and focus on my work. But what I saw that day definitely changed me. The next time I read something or see something related to police brutality I’m sure I will be consumed by that sickening feeling of an elephant on my chest.

The man I saw on the road ended up being admitted in a hospital. He left the scene in a stretcher and his family was not allowed to visit him in the hospital. I only hope he doesn’t become another statistic.


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When Florence Came…

It was just me and the kids against the fury of Florence – a category 4 hurricane hurtling towards the Carolinas. The models predicted that it was headed straight for us and was going to dump torrential rain and tear down trees with its catastrophic winds. I didn’t know what to do. I had never faced a hurricane before.

The last time we were hit by a natural disaster, I was in Chennai, when the city was hit by the worst flood ever in 100 years. We lost internet and cell phone coverage and didn’t have power for a day but we were never in any real danger. I didn’t have to worry about what to do if the flood waters entered the house because others were on top of it. I simply had to “follow” along.

Way back in 2009, when we were living in Boston, a freak ice storm in October crippled most of the state. It snowed and then the temperature rose above freezing point, at which point the snow thawed. Later that night, the temperature plunged to subzero turning the snow into ice. The naked trees with their brittle branches couldn’t take the weight of the snow and fell on top of the electric lines, leaving millions without power for days.

We woke up freezing, only to find out that the thermostat wasn’t working and there was no power. We had to leave. The house would soon turn into an igloo. We stayed at a hotel and then at a friend’s place (try keeping two toddlers cooped up in a pint-size room without toys) till the power was restored four days later. Again there was no threat to our lives or property. We were just a little inconvenienced.

In the five years we lived in Florida, we never once had to evacuate because of a hurricane or a tornado. Sandy didn’t hit us but went up north to wreak havoc in the Northeast.

Back in North Carolina, at our team meeting, everyone was talking about their hurricane plans. Some were leaving for western NC or Florida and some were staying put.

“I don’t know where to go,” I said, choking back tears. “Maybe I’ll call some cousins in Washington DC and see if I can go stay with them.”  I guess my worst fear was about making a bad decision that ended up hurting all of us.

I ended up calling my friend from college who also lives in Raleigh. She opened her home and hearth to me and the kids. She even offered to pick us up so my car can stay safely parked in the garage. My friend from work sensed the panic in my voice and showed up with a trunk full of hurricane essentials. She even got some cash for me, just in case I couldn’t make it to the bank.

All through the week friends and family called and texted to check on us. So many people prayed for us. It wasn’t just me and my kids against Florence. I wasn’t alone or afraid anymore. I was surrounded by an army of angels that I’m proud to call my friends. Two days before the hurricane hit, I saw a rainbow and knew it was a sign that we would be OK.

By Wednesday, the storm was downgraded to a category 2 and its path had changed drastically. It wasn’t coming straight at us. It was playing touch and go with the Carolina coast and then swerving around South Carolina on its way to western NC. I was relieved and decided to stay home and wait out the storm. The kids had Thursday and Friday off and we prepped for the storm. We bought bread, fruit, and cereal bars, filled containers with filtered water. Filled the bathtubs with water to flush the toilets in case the water was turned off.

Thursday came and went with rain and breezy conditions. On Friday the wind and rain picked up. I was afraid our young maple trees would topple but they survived the storm. On Friday evening we lost power. I cooked dinner (the gas wasn’t turned off, thankfully) while there was still light outside. My son cooked the frozen chicken and salmon burgers so we wouldn’t have to throw it out in case power was gone for more than a couple of hours.

We sat in the dark and listened intently to the radio for tornado alerts in our area. As I paced up and down, the kids reassured me that we would be OK and that we would get through this. I was really thankful for their maturity and level-headedness during the whole ordeal. They insisted that I play “anthakshari” with them to keep my mind off the hurricane. It’s a game played in India where teams sing songs that begin with the last letter of the song sung by their opponents.

My son took out his circuit board set and found a tiny bulb that he hooked up with a battery so we didn’t need to use candles. The power came back in a couple of hours and I was really thankful for that.

In the midst of all this, I had friends and family messaging and checking on me. On Monday, I had felt all alone in the world. But by Friday my heart was full, full of gratitude for the amazing people in my life. Some near, some far, some I hear from every week and some I haven’t heard from in years. But they all thought of me, prayed for me and it was nothing short of a miracle that not one hair on my head was harmed.

As I type these words my eyes are brimming with tears, not because I’m alone and afraid but because God sent so many angels to help me through the storm. Infinite love and gratitude to all of you.

Please remember that not everyone was spared by Florence. So many people have lost their homes, their loved ones, and everything they had. If you feel inspired to help these folks, please consider donating something toward hurricane relief efforts in NC and SC.