Punctuate Life

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Why I Volunteer

So things haven’t changed for the better since my last post. I’m still looking for work and resigning myself to the fact that I will have to wait until next year for something to come my way.

When I feel stuck or feel that things aren’t flowing or working for me, I do two things.

  1. Write in my gratitude journal. I did this to land my last job. I wrote thank you for my new and wonderful job in my journal every single day and even wrote about the kind of job I was looking for.
  2. Look for opportunities to give or serve. This worked for me years ago when I was trying to get back to work after a long hiatus. I volunteered in public schools for several years and then landed a job in a charter school.

It doesn’t help that most people are posting pictures of cruises and vacations in the Caribbean when I’ll be doing a staycation this year. So I decided to look for volunteer opportunities on Idealist. I found something that would use my skills as a writer/ editor and for a cause close to my heart (children and education).

Volunteering helps you feel good and gives you the satisfaction of contributing to the community in meaningful ways. It also helps you make friends and learn new skills. By taking away your focus from what is lacking in your life, volunteering allows you to appreciate what you have.

You have to give to receive. So whenever you feel things are not flowing to you, it is a good practice to give and get back into the flow of the Universe. Waiting till you have enough will keep you waiting indefinitely. Give how much ever you can of your time, money and efforts and you will be rewarded with peace and contentment.

Even if you are in a good place in your life, take the time to give back. There are so many out there who are hurting and can benefit from your generosity. Serve wherever you are, even if it is for an hour every week or every month and you will find it brings you more joy than all the comforts and things money can buy. This is truly one of those cases where the giver of the gift benefits as much or more than the receiver.

Still need convincing? A study report by CNCS titled “Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment” found that active volunteers were 27% more likely to get a job than non-volunteers.


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Not Poetry, Not Prose…

 

It’s not about black lives,

It’s not about white lives,

It’s about justice and fairness.

 

It’s not about men,

It’s not about women,

It’s about equality for everyone under the sun.

 

It’s not about Islam,

It’s not about Christianity,

It’s about oneness and tolerance.

 

I don’t care if you are gay, transgender, Hispanic or Arab,

This earth with all its treasures are yours,

And so is peace, love, dignity,

And a safe place to call home,

A right to love and be loved,

To justice, fairness and liberty,

And all good things under the heavens.

 

Ignore the entitled few who love to judge,

And take sides in endless cyber wars,

The heartless ones who quietly fan the embers of dissent,

And watch the dancing flames from afar as they consume countless innocents,

The haters, manipulators, trolls, politicians and their sycophants.

 

Let’s disengage from the drama,

And speak out in one voice – Enough is enough!

Lift the downtrodden from the pits of despair,

And light hope in their hearts.

 

What many before us fought for,

And passed on as a treasured gift,

We will not allow to be shamelessly snatched from our hands.

 

 


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Womanly Woes

I caught a glimpse of a serial on television the other day. This was the scene – a blind wife throws herself at the husband’s feet begging to be allowed to stay with him. Her disability is seen as a major hindrance that prevents her from doing her wifely duties and chores. Well-wishers urge the husband to dump her at an ashram and find a new wife to take care of the house and his child. With tears streaming down her face she begs this stone-faced man who scolds her and tells her to make her way to the ashram.

She painted such a pathetic picture of herself, wailing uncontrollably, helpless and totally at the mercy of her husband that it stirred something in me. This was no modern day soap but inklings of such desperate behavior do show up in pretty much every television offering. Forget television, in the back drop called real life a lot was going on. The triple talaq debate for one. Raping an unconscious woman gets a Stanford student a light sentence to protect his future. And in another part of the world a woman gets on the wrong side of law for reporting sexual assault. A Bollywood star (I’d rather call him scum) compares the rigors of shooting his film to being raped and if history is to be believed he will get away with it thanks to his celebrity status and blind fans who will back him up unashamedly.

Where is the justice? I wanted to reach into the screen and shake up that waling woman and tell her she was better off without that jerk of a husband and to stop treating him like some Greek God that needed to be appeased. Known for people pleasing, we women take it to another level when it comes to men. We deny ourselves in order to please our men. Oh he doesn’t like me wearing make-up. Oh he likes my hair short. Oh he doesn’t want me to work. What the hell do you like woman? Does he honor that as well? I hope so or he is so not worth it. Some women deny their own needs to the extent of living in loveless or abusive relationships. You deserve to be loved and honored for what you are. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. It is sad that so many economically impoverished and uneducated women are left high and dry by men who use and abuse them. It is sadder that many educated, highly capable women suffer in silence instead of walking away from abusive or adulterous husbands.

The excuses are many. Kids. Society. Financial dependence. But when a man does the same thing no one questions him. He can wash his hands off his kids and get away without paying child support or alimony. But women? Oh no! Walk away from an abusive relationship and you have ruined your child’s future, marital prospects, psychologically damaged them and what not. And guess what? It’s always the woman’s fault!

If educated women can’t stand up against these atrocities then what hope does a poor housewife who can’t read or write have? Her fate is sealed and she can be cast out on a whim or just by uttering a word three times. Or worse held hostage and made to do the housework while the husband carries on with other women. Victims of aggression and insatiable lust, these women suffer unspeakable horrors. Some pay the price for standing up. They are burnt alive or marred for life by acid attacks. When will this end I keep asking myself. Sometime soon I really hope and then even the media will reflect that change with empowered women who hold their own without a man hovering in the background.


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A Ray of Hope for Racial Tensions

Ferguson. The very word conjures up images of racial discrimination, violence and segregation. Images of black and white. Cops and innocents. Right and wrong. How about Los Angeles some 1800 miles to the west of Ferguson? Same story. Different names but the same drama unfolded in LA. Incidents between police officers and the public have blown out of proportion in the past. The black community does not trust the police and they are looked upon as the ‘bad guys’. Much like in the game – Grand Theft Auto.

Now what this adds up to, is a community plagued by gangs, drugs and sky-high homicide rates. Do the homicides cases get solved? No. The people refuse to co-operate with the police even if they know the truth, leaving the killer at large, smug with the knowledge that the cops can never get to him.

At some point the police force in Watts, LA decided enough is enough and came up with a unique plan to regain the trust of this community. They started a youth football team coached by LA police officers. Now don’t even for a second think that all the parents lined up to register their kids for the team. The officers had to go door to door asking if they would allow their kids to join the team. Many turned down the offer. Some reluctantly agreed but refused to leave the kids alone with the officers. Painstakingly and one by one, the parents slowly began to open up to the officers. They no longer demonized them, ignored them or stared daggers at them. Now the Watts Bears accepts players between the ages of 9 and 11. The program is free, the kids get a uniform and they are picked up in a police van. The boys have to get good grades and model good behavior at school. Using sports to reinforce good character traits and having contact with a good role model keeps this boys out of gangs. Most of the boys do not have fathers and this negatively impacts their ability to become responsible citizens.

One of the officers reminisces about finding an abandoned baby in a parking lot on a rainy night. He rescued the baby and put him up for adoption. A decade later he is coaching the very same boy who just happened to join the Watts Bears football team. Three years later the homicide rates have dropped in this neighborhood. Citizens are co-operating with the cops to solve crimes. Kids from rival gangs actually play on the same team – something that was impossible in the past.

The officers who support this program are a couple – one a black woman who grew up in Watts and the other a white man who started his career as a cop in the same neighborhood. So police cameras, guns and protests did not resolve the situation here. Interaction between the cops and community – not just when violence erupts but in a more stable environment to slowly build trust and co-operation, until both sides could see beyond the differences and see how human they were.

If this can happen in LA, the very place that was burning with fires of racial hatred and dissension in the 90s, then this can happen in Ferguson as well. We are a ‘Race of Hope’ – for every 10 people who breed hate and terror there is one person shining the light of love and compassion to bridge gulfs of separation and differences. And the number is growing and growing. I believe that one day we will look at a person and not see the color of their skin but the light of their soul in their eyes and know deep in our hearts that we are one.


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Death with Dignity?

After one final flash of color, the trees are losing their leaves and getting ready for winter. Winter! Brrrr! The very thought of it makes me shiver. And makes me want to run away to Florida where I enjoyed five mild winters with the temperature hovering around 60 degrees F. I have always wanted to escape tough situations than face them. This doesn’t mean that I’m not strong. It just means that I prefer not to deal with things head on. For instance, if I’m really mad at someone, I like to walk away and cool down instead of engaging in a wordy altercation. Withdraw. Retreat. And hope that the problem magically disappears.

So it was only natural for me to want to exit from the human plane when life got really crappy and I hit rock bottom. It came as a rude shock to me that my behavior caused intense pain to my loved ones – even though I felt nobody really cared at that time. They loved me. Even the sick, sad and unhappy version of me. My presence was all that mattered. My living, breathing presence.

There are days in my life that I really wish I didn’t have to go on but I always remember the lessons I learned during my days of dark depression. My sphere of influence may be small and unimpressive but the people in it need me – right down to my last breath.

So when Brittany Maynard decided to take her own life by consuming lethal drugs prescribed by doctors, it hit a nerve. The whole story did not sit well with me. The planning and preparation, moving to a state that supported “Death with Dignity” and having doctors assist in the suicide. The enormous support and the outpouring of funds for the cause is even more appalling.

There is a lot of controversy over pulling the plug when comatose patients show no response after years of surviving on life support, or little or no brain activity. When there is no written documentation of the patients’ wishes it is a hard decision to be made, legally and emotionally, especially for loved ones. There are cases where doctors have wanted to pull the plug but could not without parental consent, only to have the patient recover from the coma and go on to live a normal life. So is this trend making doctors give up too soon and misjudge a patient’s ability to recover and heal? Probably.

We as a race try to lord it over all – animals, humans under our care and even death! We think we have the power to decide who dies and how and when it should happen. We do it to dogs and cats in shelters that no one will adopt. So if someone wants to die, let’s all chip in and help. That seems to be the attitude. Let’s not die fighting, let’s just die before even trying! Please don’t get me wrong. Terminally ill patients undergo a lot of suffering and it decreases their quality of life but I find it disturbing that they leave no room for a miracle or hope. Their struggle could be someone else’s inspiration or a wake-up call to family to take better care of themselves. You never know.

If I had given up and left I wouldn’t be here typing this. I wouldn’t be a mom of two adorable children. I wouldn’t have taken a cross-country trip or eaten apple pie or met half of the wonderful people I have met till today. My life has its ups and downs but I know if I’m still breathing I have not fulfilled my purpose.

I saw a disturbing documentary about of group of people that go around assisting terminally ill people. They go into their homes and help them die (or appear to) in their sleep. They put on gas masks and at some point the body’s reflex is to try and remove the mask. That goes to show that the will to survive is stronger than any other dominant emotion. I won’t go into the details of the documentary which is very perturbing to say the least. But I do remember how shocked and upset the loved ones were. Yes, the deceased was suffering and it was hard for them to bear the pain and suffering. But these people meant something to their loved ones. Their presence – sick or healthy – mattered to their family. In my opinion if you can’t give life, then you have no business taking it away.

With limited knowledge about the repercussions of doing something drastic like snuffing out a life before its time, we are messing with things beyond our understanding. Life is full of pain and we cannot avoid it. But we can avoid suffering. Not by shedding our mortal frame but by tapping into that undying part of ourselves. One brave soul did just that.

Her name is Talia and she was suffering from Neuroblastoma and Leukemia. This bald 13 -year old bubbling with life, never let the cancer dim her spirit. She posted videos of herself, smiling without a single hair on her head. She loved make-up and posted videos of how to apply make up to get a certain look. She was an inspiration to everyone who was fighting cancer and struggling with body image issues. Cancer leaves one feeling ugly and incomplete and she addressed this in her own special way. She did not make it but lives on through the videos she has created – smiling and beautiful in the face of something so tragic.

Imagine if Stephen Hawking gave up. He had ample reason to. You think getting through every day is easy for him? And he was not born that way. He was born normal and progressively lost the use of his limbs and voice. If he had decided to die, the world would never have heard about black holes and god particles.

You and I may not make award winning discoveries or inspire the whole world but we surely matter. Every breath is a gift no matter how labored or painful. Don’t throw away your life or support “death with dignity” no matter how right the reasons look. There is a bigger plan and please have the humility to not mess with it.

 


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Rice and Ice in Bowls and Buckets

A week ago a friend challenged me to the ALS ice bucket challenge. I had already heard about it given that celebrities like Oprah, Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates had taken it up. One reason why I didn’t want to do it was obvious and the others not so obvious (even to me).

The obvious reason – I hate being cold. I’m the one that prayed and visualized being in a warm place, which finally resulted in us moving from freezing Boston to balmy Florida. So the idea of dumping a bucket of ice on myself did not appeal to me at all. But my kids were very tickled by the idea and even called up their Dad at work so he could pick up a bag of ice on his way to freeze Mom! Of course they forgot all about it by the time Dad came home. By then the ALS had amassed $23 million which I thought was enough. Why not donate funds to scientists working on the Ebola vaccine so it can be made available this year instead of in 2015? So many more lives could be saved right? But then who cares about Africa. Who cares about saving water. Who cares that some villages in Africa don’t have clean drinking water. Who cares about water shortage in cities in India. Who cares about drought in California. Thankfully a few people including me do!

Roll back to when I was ten years old living in the city of Chennai. If you drive around the slums you’d see a long line of women waiting with plastic pots or ‘kodums’ to pump water. They have no plumbing and no running water in their humble hutments and have to queue up at dawn to fill their pots with water for cooking and bathing. We lived in a rented house on the 2nd floor while our landlords lived on the 1st floor. We had plumbing and running water for many years and then suddenly our landlord decided to shut off our water. We had to go down to the backyard, pump water and carry it up two flights of stairs. Images of my mom’s kitchen with every available pot and pan (even the grinder)  filled with water comes to my mind. I was too small to carry a full bucket of water so I carried half a bucket to help. This went on for sometime and then my parents got tired of it, bought their own apartment and we moved.

Being denied such a basic need has scarred us forever. I still turn off the water while brushing. I never throw clean water that has been sitting around and use it to water my plants or wash dishes. Even water from our fish tank was never flushed down the toilet. My mother still waters her plants with dish water from her kitchen sink. Her kitchen faucet was dripping at one point and she kept a bucket under it to collect the water.

So seeing this mass movement of dumping ice made me very uncomfortable. I’m not a celebrity but I’m extremely suspicious of celebrities.  They (most of them) continue to spend lavishly on homes, clothes and even manicures encrusted with black diamonds, while people starve, lose their homes and die. This whole ALS challenge smacked so strongly of celebrities that I had to abandon it.

I’m not a social worker but living in the U.S. has opened my eyes to the kindness of ordinary people. People like you and me with modest resources. Volunteering and charity work is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. So when a friend in India was telling me about how people would rather throw away food than feed their maids, I was appalled. It was not like India at all. Feeding the poor was touted as a very meritorious act by almost every religion and said to bestow innumerable blessings on anyone who practiced it.

I suggested a food drive like the ones they do in the U.S. Food drives happen in schools, social groups and even the postal service allots a day when you can put non-perishable food in your mailbox to be donated to a local food bank. So I told my friend to start small. Involve just her colleagues and then slowly spread the word around and encourage others to conduct food drives in their communities. My friend was very excited about it but I guess her excitement was squashed by others. I can just picture them shrugging their shoulders and saying – What difference will it make?

So when the rice bucket challenge got media attention I was thrilled. Saving water and feeding the poor in India appealed to me and several others who took it up with gusto. It is even simpler than a food drive. It just involves one individual taking rice from their pantry and donating it to someone needy in their neighborhood. The celebrities in India have not caught the rice bucket fever yet but everyday folks are doing their bit.

I’m not saying donating to ALS or raising awareness about it is not a worthy cause. But doing it by wasting precious resources is not called for. Be a celebrity in your own right – not by mimicking the ones that pass off as celebrities by being blatantly insensitive and shamelessly narcissistic.

Donate rice to the needy or money to the ALS or some other worthy cause and you will instantly be a celebrity to me!


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The Other Side of Shiva…

Blue and pink. Fairies, princesses, ballet and gymnastics. Legos, pirates, superheroes, cars and trains. Even before they are born, our babies have their whole lives planned out – what color their rooms will be, what clothes they will wear, what toys they will play with and preferred activities and games. We put our babies in neat little boxes painted blue or pink and label them boy or girl. When they try to crawl out of the box and get into the other one we push them back into the box we think they should be in. Think about it. Do we truly honor our children and see them as unique marvels of creation? Nope. We thrust our preconceived sexist ideologies on them.

Try dressing your baby in blue even if she is a girl and take her out for a stroll. I did that! Everyone went on about what a beautiful baby boy I had. Keep your girl’s hair short and again she gets mistaken for a boy. Once in school, girls with short hair get bullied for keeping their locks cropped. When boys grow their hair long it is cool – except in India. Schools out there don’t like boys with long hair. I’ve heard that they send some of them with their hair tied up in rubber bands just to make a point.

I recently dug up some old tapes with footage of my kids as toddlers. My son was walking around with a pink baby doll and kept calling it “baby”. As much as I encouraged him to play dolls with his sister, somewhere along the way he got the message that dolls are girly. It makes me sad to see my kids drift apart and do their own thing when at one time they used to play together for hours.

But this kind of bias runs deeper than just the color pink or dolls. It is like a subliminal undercurrent that sometimes catches us by surprise. Like the time when I was talking to my kids about growing up and having families of their own. My daughter who decided pretty early in her life that she wants to be a doctor asked me, ” Ma, who will take care of my kids if I go to work?”. It never occurred to her that her future husband shared the responsibility of raising the kids. I was stumped by her question and instead of telling her that raising kids was not solely a woman’s job, I offered to babysit while she worked!

While women have been excluded from boxes labelled ” A Man’s Job”, even if they were worthy and competent, men seldom crawled into boxes that had roles specifically for women. Remember Ben Stiller who played the male nurse in “Meet the Parents”? He was constantly ridiculed for his career choice. In my own life I theoretically believed that I (being a foodie and all) would love being married to a chef. In real life I turned down an alliance from a chef who worked in a five star rated hotel. So somewhere deep in my psyche I felt women needed to do all the cooking, maybe?

Back in my grandmother’s days women were not allowed in the kitchen because they had male cooks. My great grandmother who shares my name must be tut-tutting – two generations down the line her infamous great granddaughter has surrendered to the patriarchal system.

Born in the 70s I must have imbibed some of the energy from the Women’s movement. I grew up with a brother and we got treated differently, especially in our youth. He got to stay out late, go to clubs and discos and New Year’s eve parties, while I had to stay home. Anytime this happened,  I would raise a red flag and rant and rave (till I was blue) about discrimination of the girl child and women’s rights. My parents married me off young lest I go rogue.

After I got married my husband and I took on traditional roles – he worked and I stayed home and cared for the kids. I didn’t mind it at first but over the years I felt like I was taking on more and more. I was resentful and constantly nagged him about doing more around the house. Fortunately we both realized that our relationship is constantly growing and changing and that to make it successful one needs to adapt. Now I get more help from my husband and sometimes I don’t even have to ask.

Things are far from equal when we compare the two genders but in an ideal world we’d be equally balanced. There is a story in Hindu scriptures of a time when the mother of the universe playfully closed the eyes of Shiva. The entire cosmos was shrouded in darkness and all living beings suffered and perished. When the mother removed her hands, Shiva chided her and pointed out the destruction that she had caused. It broke her heart to see the suffering that she had inadvertently inflicted on her children. She set off to do penance and obtain Shiva’s forgiveness. At the end of her severe penance, Shiva and the mother merged as one so they would never be separate. The story is symbolic of the oneness of the male and the female aspects of the universe but we find it hard to picture that as humans. So the result of the merging of the mother and father of the universe is depicted as below. All we can do is hope for a time when we would honor the male and female aspects of ourselves instead of suppressing one or the other. For one cannot flourish without the other and they are inseparable.