Punctuate Life

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Guest Blog: 26/11 by Dinesh Damodaran

I wasn’t in Mumbai at the time of the attacks. I did however happen to visit the home of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who was killed in the operation, to offer my condolences. I wrote this verse after that visit. I never knew the Major personally, but there was a profound sadness in me after speaking to his father and some of his OTA / NDA batch mates.

The pain doesn’t diminish every time I reminisce
about the day I met the parents of a son who perished,
enlisted to protect & serve, deserved
to be decorated, not separated from those he loved,
or to die by the gun of a terrorist scum,
The courageous Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan

I entered a home plunged in grief, shattered belief
TV hummed in the living room, channels playing footage of the siege
Relatives debated on what-ifs and what may have been
Father stood in the hall, hands folded
In the bedroom the mother wept on a relative’s shoulder,
distraught at thoughts of her son aged 31 who wouldn’t grow older
Not consoled by whatever they told her, forever wounded for being
the mother of a martyred soldier.

I stood paralyzed, tongue-tied
I had to really control myself
or I would’ve cried
Mustered courage to walk up to the Major’s dad and say
“Excuse me sir, I’m sorry for your loss today.”
“Don’t be. He died serving his country.”
“Are you a Friend of my son?’ he asks
“No sir, I’m just a citizen.”
Took leave, headed home,
Thinking back of how Mumbai
turned into a war zone

A date that’s etched
in my mind’s slate
26 November 2008 –
the day people of Mumbai
became terrorist bait.
Attacks came late in the p.m.
innocent lives left to fate,
in the capital of the MH State.


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Fall in Paradise

MtRainierPic (3) Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees – John Muir

A long weekend in the middle of October is a great time to do all things fall. Like a trip to the pumpkin patch and a drive up to the Cascade mountains to catch some fall colors. We headed to the pumpkin patch on a cloudy day interspersed with rain. The pumpkin patch had pumpkins in all shapes and sizes. The kids picked three pumpkins – a large, a medium and a small (for N’s pumpkinology school project). We loaded them up in a wheel barrow which N had a swell time pushing around. The farm also offered hay rides in a wagon pulled by an old tractor. We took a bumpy ride around the farm with its apple trees, pumpkin patches and dried up sunflowers from the summer. The farm also had lavender plants from which they bottled lavender oil, available for purchase at the store. There were some old-fashioned water pumps in the farm that were set up for rubber duck races. N enjoyed pumping water at the pump, with the water gushing down little horizontal chutes. Goes without saying that my kids felt they were too old for rubber duck races! Too old to stick their heads through wooden pumpkins for pictures. We were all cold and wet and hungry after our trip to the farm. So we headed off to Bamboo Garden for some Hot and Sour soup, fried rice, Mongolian chicken, Szechuan veggies and Manchurian. The warm meal lulled us into a torpor and we all dozed off when we got home. The next day was our big trip to Mount Rainier. P was to buy some snacks and veggie burgers for the trip but I was in an unusually good mood and wanted to make everything – including the snacks. I made veggie cutlets, crispy murukku, apple pie and mixed nuts for the trip. MtRainierPic (1) The next day we rose early and headed out by 7.00 a.m. The roads were free and we made it in good time. We saw a rainbow as we were driving through perfectly straight rows of evergreens that fringed the roads. The Cascade mountains showed up in the horizon – black and austere. As we neared the park entrance, Mount Rainier appeared – aloof, majestic and snowcapped. Our first stop was at Christine falls, right by the side of the road. We then drove to the Jackson visitor center in Paradise, which offered a really stunning view of Mount Rainier. The summit was seldom free of cloud cover but we did manage to get some pictures of the cloud-free peak. Armed with trail maps, we headed off to see Myrtle falls, which was a short hike through the meadows  in Paradise. The wildflowers were long gone but the meadows were dressed in different hues of red and yellow. MtRainierPic (4) Near the 72-foot Myrtle falls, is a little bridge over the Paradise River and we went under the bridge to touch the ice-cold water. The last waterfall we saw in the park was the spectacular Narada falls, named after the Hindu sage Narada. The early settlers thought the falls had a spiritual connection. It connected the earth and the heavens much like sage Narada did. MtRainierPic (8) We drove to the Reflections Lake and hiked around its perimeter with Mount Rainier in the background. The lake was surrounded by trees that were changing color. Parts of the lake were still and reflected the trees and the clouds above. Some of the pictures we took here look like picture postcards. All that walking got us hungry and we went to the Paradise Picnic area to eat veggie burgers and chips with juice and coffee – with a perfect view of the ever changing Mount Rainier. Later while watching the film on Mount Rainier at the visitor center, we realized that the engineers had built the roads and the buildings to offer the best views of the mountain. MtRainierPic (10) After lunch we headed off to see Nisqually Glacier which was a short 1.2 mile hike (or so we thought). We ended up on the wrong trail and kept going for more than an hour until my legs burned. But the trail kept going on and on. We reached the Deadhorse (believe me I felt like one!) Creek trail before we realized we were not on the right trail. It was too late to turn back so we kept going until we reached Glacier Vista (elevation 6340 feet) which offered an amazing view of the glacier, falls and the valley below. At this point I was freezing – hat, gloves, double jacket and all! N and P wanted to continue up the trail to see Mount Rainier up and close. I was dreading the walk back downhill so I stayed put with A. There was some snow off to the side of the road so A played with it. She found a tiny snowman that fell apart when she touched it. She put it back together as best she could. Meanwhile, N and P reached a snow-covered road and took some great pictures with the magnificent Mount Rainier in the background. The hike back down was steep and painful and I doubted I’d make it before my legs collapsed under me. But I made it and we enjoyed some apple pie before catching the 20-minute film at the visitor center. Boy was I surprised to hear that Mount Rainier was an active volcano with steam vents at the summit. I had told my kids it was dormant, given its snow-white and innocent demeanor. The park boasted numerous glaciers and I was glad we were able to see one of these ice rivers. There was obviously more to the park than we explored (235,625 acres to be precise). The Great Patriarch Forest with its huge ancient trees was worth exploring but considering the plight of my muscles hip-down, we put off all further exploration for later. The kids got their first-ever junior ranger badges from the park ranger. It was a big deal, with oaths and all. Almost like being knighted! Almost. We picked up some souvenirs from the gift shop and headed home. The drive home was quiet, with the kids sleeping, but the traffic we missed in the morning came back to bite us. All in all, it was a day well-spent, in the mountains, breathing in the fresh air, drinking glacial water and away from it all. When we got lost while hiking, or it started raining and we had no where to go, I knew we had to give up all control and just submit to Nature. Because up here in the mountains She was in charge. If I had collapsed during the hike downhill we didn’t even have cellphone coverage to call for help. I had to simply trust and go down one step at a time.

Where will you go this fall? Make a trip away from it all and witness the magic of wilderness.


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Waxing Nostalgic

I am guilty of living in the past. I can’t really explain why. It’s like an aching. A longing. A strong conviction that the past held magic amidst the mundane. The glittering golden glory days of yore – far superior than the modern day drudgery. Something about those bygone days captivate me. Something about musty albums with black and white photos pasted carefully on cardboard pages and separated by layers of tissue. Something romantic about the lifestyle. Glimpses of my ancestors hobnobbing with royalty. Girls married off at puberty. Love letters tied up with ribbon and stored in biscuit tins. Where travelling to England meant a long treacherous voyage by sea.

While strolling through the rooms of the Cochin Palace I felt this strong yearning for the past. I imagined the princesses bathing in the pond and then taking long walks through the gardens with deer flitting by. The ladies-in-waiting dressed their hair with jewels and wrapped them in “kasavu” saris. I could almost hear the strains of music and the tinkling of anklets. My heart fluttered at the thought of going back to that time in history. My friend shook me out of my reverie and narrated “not so romantic” aspects of a woman’s life in days of the Raj.

I have only my grandma to blame for painting such a glorious picture of her high society days. She threw parties galore and had Russian ex-pats wining and dining with her. Although her trip to England was marked by hardship and disease, it still held a certain magic for me. I wish I could go back in time just to see my grandpa and how tenderly he looked at my grandma, the love of his life. To maybe dance with him, the way he danced with all the little girls in the room, crouching down to their height and sashaying them around till they giggled in pure glee. Or to just hear his voice and the authority it held. To travel back to England and help my grandma bake bread or watch as she presided over an Indian committee.

Or if I could simply pack my bags and stow away on a ship to the past and be an invisible observer – not intruding, not changing the course of history, but simply taking it all in – turning all the musty, black and white photos to fragrant Technicolor movies if you will. The war, the rations, the biting cold of an English winter, the glamorous parties and the beautifully furnished bungalows. See my grandma as she grieved the loss of my grandpa and quietly but unobtrusively send her vibes of sympathy and courage so she could go on and meet me later. Only to tell tales of how things were and how we could never go back to that charmed life.

When I visit mountains where Native Americans once roamed, the very same yearning fills my heart. Of roaming free in the wilderness, one with nature, drinking from the stream, picking berries and running away from bears. Like Pocahontas but without any interference from the British. Maybe I’d like to go to even Ireland, when druids made potions and witches spoke spells. Or Japan when emperors ruled and Buddhism was taking root. Maybe I travel to these places in my dreams and maybe some day time travel won’t be just an idea in a book.

But until then I have resigned myself to live with that aching, that longing, knowing that it is gone, much like the people that lived in it, mingled in the dust, faint in the memories of those still alive, every fading ever more.


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On Gratitude and Giving

This is one of my favorite topics, so forgive me if I keep rehashing it and presenting it in yet another blog to you. Drawing from my earlier post on nature versus nurture, I had the good fortune of knowing three very generous ladies. Two of them were my grandmothers and one was my ‘adopted’ grandmother. My Dadima (dad’s mom) was a businesswoman and she did really well selling cooking gas to households and hotels. Ganga (my adopted grandmother) lived with her and took care of the home, the dogs, the garden and cooking. My Mutasshi (my mom’s mom) lived in the quiet village of Viakkom in Kerala with my grandpa, who was retired. They lived off his small pension and some money they made by selling coconuts, cashews and other things that my grandpa grew in his huge backyard.

Although they all had different incomes, they were infinitely compassionate. People would come to them, steeped in debt or unable to shoulder an unexpected expense and the money was given. My Mutasshi has gone as far as pledging her gold chain to help a maid. Ganga denied herself a home and paid a huge sum towards a loved one’s home. Dadima has married off some of the younger maids and provided utensils and other things they needed to set up a home. This blog is too small to share their acts of generosity. Suffice to say that at both my grandmas’ funerals, strangers came to us weeping and relating stories of their compassion and altruism.

Give to receive. I learnt this lesson when I was still a schoolgirl. Riding a bus back home one day, I sat next to a gray-haired lady of somewhat frugal means. She was short of 25 paisa (equivalent to a quarter) and the rude conductor was yelling at her. I quickly fished out some change and thrust it into the conductor’s hand. He muttered and withdrew to his seat.

A few days later, I didn’t have change for five rupees and the conductor (not the same one) refused to take it and give me change. I pleaded with him but he told me to get off at the next stop. I was nearly in tears. One lady overheard the whole thing and asked me how much the fare was. I told her and she quietly extracted the coins from her purse and gave it to the conductor. Karma or pay back! What else can I say!

When I was still in school I would look for ways to help and had a mental checklist. If I helped someone I said to myself – you have done your good deed for today! Growing up meant burying all of this in the whole money-making, getting ahead in life and succeeding craziness that we all buy into. How right we are as kids, with our hearts in the right place. And then we unlearn all of heaven’s wisdom and replace it with a worldliness so nonsensical to become grown -ups! Our intellects expand but our hearts shrink.

Gratitude means different things in different cultures. In some cultures a simple thank you is enough. In Japan, one way of expressing gratitude is to say that you are indebted to the other person and owe them a favor. They don’t stop at just lip service. They actually go out of their way to help the other person – sometimes more than once. In some cultures this kind of generosity may be taken advantage of.

Acts of kindness have a ripple effect beyond the giver and receiver. The gift of gratitude keeps on giving. It all adds up in your karmic record and comes bounding back in heaps and loads, when you least expect it.

If life is not going well for you right now and you are not receiving all that you are wishing for, stop and find ways to give. Give exactly what you need to receive and watch the magic happen. Just the act of selfless giving creates joy in your life. And being in a state of joy helps. It attracts good things to you and possibly the very thing you were missing will show up.

Another way of doing it, is to be grateful for what you have every single day instead of harping on what’s missing. Gratitude was the one thing that turned my life around, followed by giving. So when I wasn’t getting any calls for interviews, I jumped back into volunteering. After my first meeting with other volunteers, I came home and found an e-mail from the school district asking if I was still interested in the job I had applied for! Later someone from a staffing company called me and told me she was interested in hiring me. What more proof can I give you? Gratitude and giving open the flood doors to great gifts. Give and you shall receive. And when you receive, don’t forget to send a thank you note. I highly recommend keeping a stash of thank you notes in your stationery drawer. You never know when you will need one.

Have you experienced the boomerang effect of giving in your life? Do share your stories.


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Nature or Nurture: My Genes Revealed

I was recently writing an article about genetics and came across the nature versus nurture theory. I’ve heard of it before but never applied it to my life, until now. You see I have been fighting nature and possibly nurture all my life.

My Dad and I have a lot in common. We are both quiet bookworms with a small group of friends and prefer silence to small talk. Did I mention my Dad was a writer? My Mom on the other hand has what you call the gift of the gab. She can strike up conversations with total strangers. She was a teacher and so are two of her sisters. Teaching genes are strongly expressed in her generation. My Dad was probably the only writer in his generation. And in their relationship Mom is clearly the dominant one. I probably have a lot of the ‘dominant’ teaching genes. If you happen to be a friend of mine you know what I am talking about. I love giving sermons, counselling and advising people (much to their annoyance)!

My mom’s personality and mine are so different that teaching never featured in my career choices. Big mistake! I would have pursued a teaching degree instead of journalism if I had know I’d be teaching in my mid-thirties.

My teaching genes also benefitted from a nurturing environment. I’ve had some awesome teachers who have brought out the best in me and evoked a deep respect for this profession. My mother often spoke of how much she loved kids and how emotionally fulfilling her job was. Like her, I love kids and job satisfaction is high on my list of priorities. If I ain’t happy I ain’t doing a good job. I have to love the work and the people I work with.

Sometimes I think I inherited both writing and teaching genes in equal measure. Both seem to want to dominate my life at one time or another. If I had been privy to this knowledge ten years ago, it would have been easy to chart the course of my career. I remember how confused I was after doing my bachelors in science and realizing I didn’t want to go into teaching or research. I opted for journalism because my Dad suggested it after I took another wrong turn toward an M.S. in ecology. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed journalism. Even before I finished my thesis I was offered a job. I also worked part-time during my final semester.

My first real job was editing and I loved it for the most part. Deep down I sorely missed creative writing. Sometimes I wish I had followed my friends career paths into technical writing or computer graphics. But then again the wordsmith gene in me rebels and sulks over not being able to express itself.

Both teaching and writing are jobs that give me a good work-life balance. My kids and their lives are equally important to me. I want to be there every day when they get back from school. I want to sit at the kitchen table and feed them home-cooked meals, while they share funny stories about school.

So after much deliberation I have finally arrived at the conclusion that it’s ok to branch out. It’s ok not to follow the beaten (career) path. We as individuals are such dynamic creatures that one career cannot do justice to our many talents. That is probably the reason for such large-scale dissatisfaction as far as one’s career goes. If you have to stick to your job to pay the bills, that’s ok. Pursue other talents as hobbies or simply volunteer whenever you can. You will be happier and won’t resent your day job so much.

So here I am – a writer, a blogger, a substitute teacher, communications VP at the PTSA and wannabe yoga teacher! Unofficial jobs? Well, let’s not go there. God help me!


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Why You Chose to Die…

 

I’m sorry you chose to die,

So did I.

 

Carelessly you threw away,

Everything I struggle to be today.

The money and the fame,

Did nothing for you.

So why should I continue,

Down that path.

 

I’ve been there before,

That dark and desolate place,

Where the evil mind lurks,

Spewing out venom and lies.

The promise of a better life,

If you skip the years,

And choose to die.

 

Nobody cares – taunts that familiar voice,

Getting louder every day.

As the pain explodes yet again,

In your beleaguered body.

But what about her – you ask,

Your eyes darting to the picture frame beside you.

Nobody cares. Nobody. Not even her – comes the callous reply.

And then an even bitter lie –

She is better off without you.

 

That must have been the final blow,

That severed the last thread of resolve,

That ounce of will that you should live.

The battle was lost,

The tears were long gone.

Tomorrow it will be all over the news,

A wave of sadness passing over the globe.

And yet it would pass,

And one day you’d be as dead as you are now.

 

I’m sorry you chose to die,

So did I.

But while you crossed to the other side,

I’m stuck inside.

While you chose to run away,

I had to be brave and smile.

Everything you threw away,

I struggle to be today.

 

I’m sorry you chose to die,

So did I.


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Haven’t I Been ‘Here’ Before?

My emotions surrounding our move to the Pacific North West were not entirely pleasant. It seemed like I had just about perfected my rhythm in life when this blaring move came along and threw me out of my poise. My blog was running along successfully. I had a part-time job that allowed me to balance work, home and the kids activities in a way that everyone flourished. And then this blasted move . It uprooted me from everything familiar and plunked me in a distant and seemingly unknown place.

My mental check list goes like this – friends- zilch, job – not a clue, number of hours spent job hunting – two to four, number of hours spent staring into space – infinite, self esteem – dangerously low and continuously plummeting. Being in an unfamiliar place, I hardly venture out afraid that I’d get lost. In an eerie way it reminded me of Boston and the early days of my married life. Thrown from a working independent woman to a full time housewife almost overnight. No drivers license, no work permit and debilitating morning sickness added to the miserable mix.

The circumstances are way different now but it was tempting to go down that spiral of self-pity and utter despair. In fact for a few weeks I wallowed in it. But luckily some higher wisdom kicked in and I remembered how I had moved from Boston to Florida. Again I didn’t have a job or a license. Within a year I got my license, then my blog came into being in 2 years and by the end of the 4th year I even had a job. The circumstances were the same and yet I had flourished.

I clearly saw two paths ahead of me at this crucial juncture in my life. One where my ego led me down the familiar road of depression, hopelessness and defeat and the other where the Universe led me through joyful experiences, love, passion, abundance and fulfillment. Is it any wonder I chose the latter?

On some days it feels like I’m going around in circles, following the beaten path over and over and going no where. I have to consciously lift myself out and hover above it to see it for what it is. I may be on the same path but unlike in the past, I now have an arsenal of tools to assist me. Light if you will, is a big part of this. I’m not stumbling and falling over every rock.  I step over them with ease. There is joy in my heart and hope even though my outside reality hasn’t changed yet. And faith so strong and unshakeable that even a storm will not throw me off my feet. I may be walking the same path but I sure am leaving a fresh set of footprints.

Sometimes I feel we are put into these kind of situations to show us how much we have grown spiritually and emotionally. Old emotions no longer have a hold over me. I believe that a higher power will slowly but surely show us a way out of these unpleasant situations.

As my inner reality shifts I see many things on the outside that are gifts. For instance our trip to Seattle reminded me so much of Boston. Both cities have a lot in common. Both are a melting pot of cultures, full of museums and places of historic interest. Pike Place Market in Seattle is akin to the Quincy Market. Ferries to Bainbridge and Bremerton reminded me of our trip to the Boston Islands. Whale watching is a favorite tourist attraction in both cities. Both cities are close to the Canadian border and buzzing with activities in the summer.

So in a way the part of me that ached for Boston is in ecstasy ( if I can quieten the part of me that screams Florida!)

If you want everything to be perfect before you can be happy you will never know happiness. Be happy and all else will follow. Pharrell Williams’s song  keeps playing in my head. Cos happiness is the truth!

 

P.S. The Universe agreed with a resounding yes! The song ‘Happy’ was playing on the radio right after I finished writing this post.